Jailed Pussy Rioters switch legal team. A move away from politics?

The lawyers for the two jailed members of Pussy Riot withdrew on Monday, saying the politicization of the case was impeding their ability to represent their clients.

By , Correspondent

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    Yekaterina Samutsevich, the member of Pussy Riot who was released from jail after her sentence was suspended on appeal, speaks to the media before a court hearing in Moscow today. The lawyers for the other two Pussy Riot defendants, who received two-year prison sentence, have withdrawn from the case and will be replaced by Ms. Samutsevich's lawyer.
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Three lawyers representing two imprisoned Pussy Riot punk rockers have withdrawn – or been fired – from the case amid general agreement that they are not able to effectively represent the women as the atmosphere around their jailing grows increasingly politicized.

The lawyers announced their decision Monday, after being refused permission to visit their clients, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, who are being held in the IK-14 penal colony in the remote Volga republic of Mordovia.

The shakeup in the defense team comes just a few days after Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly sparred with German Chancellor Angela Merkel over the imprisonment of the two women, which Ms. Merkel suggested was too harsh.

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Mr. Putin scolded Merkel, saying that she knew about the case only from "afar" and was not aware that two of the three Pussy Riot defendants had earlier participated in a "performance art" display with "anti-Semitic" overtones. Russia's blogosphere subsequently erupted in outrage, with many pointing out that the 2008 incident Putin was alluding to, which featured a mock hanging of "minority" archetypes, had actually been intended to draw attention to the indifference and discrimination non-Slavic migrants and other minorities face in Russian society.

"The main question is whether some of Putin aides misinformed him – either accidentally or on purpose – or he is aware of the facts and is deliberately misinforming Angela Merkel," Ms. Tolokonnikova's husband, Pyotr Verzilov, told journalists.

Obstacles to defense

Mark Feigin, Nikolai Polozov, and Violetta Volkova were the original three lawyers for the Pussy Riot members who were sentenced in August to two years in a penal colony for performing a blasphemous, anti-Putin "punk prayer" at the altar of Moscow's leading Orthodox cathedral.

"We can no longer protect our clients because of all the obstacles that are being thrown in the way," says Mr. Feigin. "We tried to visit Tolokonnikova at IK-14, and it was not allowed. If we can't help our clients while they are incarcerated in the colonies, then what's the use?"

He said it was agreed with the Pussy Riot women that if visits wouldn't be permitted, then the lawyers would withdraw. On Monday they did, and were replaced by Irina Khrunova, the lawyer who managed to get a suspended sentence for the third Pussy Riot defendant, Yekaterina Samutsevich, by stressing technical aspects – such as the fact that Ms. Samutsevich had been detained in the church before getting involved in the profane performance – and downplaying any political dimension in the case.

Paying the price for politics?

The three departing lawyers say they were repeatedly warned not to stage a political defense, or to cultivate international support for Pussy Riot, or they would be made to pay a price for it.

"The campaign to support Pussy Riot was so active, and it became an international cause," says Mr. Polozov.

"This case had a bad effect on the reputation of Russian justice, and became personally irritating to Putin, who has to answer questions about it on visits to Britain or meetings with Angela Merkel.... There is a massive official campaign aimed at discrediting the lawyers, and we fear it will have a negative impact on our clients," he says.

"We agreed to take on a political case, and we did. It was agreed with our clients that the trial would give them a chance to defend themselves on political grounds – this was their choice – and demonstrate the defects of the justice system. They knew from the start that they might go to prison, and they were ready for that," Polozov adds.

Political or religious offense

Many Russian conservatives have argued that the harsh two-year jail terms meted out to the women were because they had insisted on describing their protest as a political one, rather than a religious offense. The court refused to hear the political arguments, and focused on the charge that the Pussy Riot performance was motivated by "religious hatred" and was a crime against Orthodox believers.

In an October TV interview, an irritated-sounding Putin appeared to back the view that the women were punished for their stubborn defiance and insistence that they were political dissidents, and might have gotten off much more lightly if they'd read from the script prepared by official prosecutors.

"My first reaction was that they should ask believers for forgiveness and that would have been that," Putin said. 

"But they kept building it up, and so the whole case ended in the court slapping them with two-year jail terms, so there you have it. I have nothing to do with this. They wanted it and they got it," he added.

Many experts point to the much lighter, suspended sentence handed to Samutsevich as an example of how things may go when the defendant, and the lawyers, approach the court in a more respectful manner.

"I don't support the Pussy Riot verdict, it was unjust, and it was political," says Yevgeny Minchenko, director of the independent International Institute of Political Expertise in Moscow.

"But it has to be noted that those lawyers politicized the trial. They were rude to the judge.... I know the majority of experts think the verdict was influenced by the behavior of the lawyers; maybe there was some impact but I don't think that was a crucial factor. I don't believe the authorities are seeking revenge against the lawyers, all that talk is greatly overblown," he adds.

Experts say that now all three women will be represented by Ms. Khrunova, whose approach is more practical, perhaps conditions for the imprisoned women may improve.

"The tactical situation has changed," says lawyer Polozov. "The [Pussy Riot women] don't need to argue their points any more. That should be replaced by the calm work of writing appeals and so on. They need a different kind of lawyer now."

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