Europeans outraged by Pussy Riot verdict

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Copy of iol pic wld Russia Punks vs Putin

AP

Feminist punk group Pussy Riot members, from left, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich sit in a glass cage at a court room in Moscow, Russia.

Brussels - European governments voiced sharp criticism of Russia on Friday over jail sentences handed down to three members of the punk band Pussy Riot, the EU foreign policy chief saying they added to a recent rise in intimidation of opposition activists there.

Catherine Ashton, the European Union's top diplomat, said the two-year sentences handed down by a Moscow court on Friday were “disproportionate” and should be reversed.

The three women were convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for performing a “punk prayer” in Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral, in which they called on the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of President Vladimir Putin.

“Together with the reports of the band members' mistreatment during pre-trial detention and the reported irregularities of the trial, it (the verdict) puts a serious question mark over Russia's respect for international obligations of fair, transparent and independent legal process,” Ashton said.

“This case adds to the recent upsurge in politically motivated intimidation and prosecution of opposition activists in the Russian Federation, a trend that is of growing concern to the European Union,” she said in a statement.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the sentence was “excessively harsh” and “not compatible with the European values of the rule of law and democracy to which Russia, as a member of the Council of Europe, has committed itself.”

“A dynamic civil society and politically active citizens are a necessary precondition for Russia's modernisation, not a threat,” she said.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in a newspaper interview that the verdict “raised concerns over civil rights in Russia in the future.”

“A peaceful artistic action cannot be regarded as a crime that leads to a long imprisonment. Criticism is an important part of a vital democracy,” Austrian Deputy Foreign Minister Wolfgang Waldner said in a statement.

The Pussy Riot case, seen as a test of the extent of Putin's tolerance of dissent, has added to the strain already placed on relations between Moscow and European governments by their opposed positions on the crisis in Syria.

British Foreign Minister Alistair Burt said in a statement that the verdict “calls into question Russia's commitment to protect fundamental rights and freedoms.”

Human rights groups urged Russian authorities to overturn the verdict and free the three women, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30.

Amnesty International said the trial was politically motivated, the women wrongfully prosecuted for a legitimate, if potentially offensive, protest action, and the verdict was “a bitter blow to freedom of expression” in Russia.

Amnesty “considers all three activists to be prisoners of conscience, detained solely for the peaceful expression of their beliefs,” it said in a statement.

“The Russian authorities should overturn the court ruling and release the members of Pussy Riot immediately and unconditionally,” said John Dalhuisen, Director of Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia Programme.

Europe's main security and rights body, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said the verdict was part of a growing tendency towards curbing freedom of expression.

“I see a trend in various countries where the authorities, social and religious groups and courts are taking a more restrictive stance on content considered to be offensive, morally questionable or dangerous for children,” said Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE in Europe's Representative on Freedom of the Media.

“Most of the time it is a pretext for censoring content that is simply not mainstream and critical,” Mijatovic said. - Reuters


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