Yesterday I met with the husband of one of the women who belong to a punk music group in Russia that has been imprisoned. Last month I sent a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin imploring him to free the members of the group. Three members of the band -- Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina -- were recently sentenced to two years in prison for a performance at Christ the Savior Cathedral.
These young women, charged with committing an act of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility," were subject to a trial that has discredited the Russian judicial system, and is generally seen as farcical -- particularly as the judge refused to consider the women's testimony or to hear witnesses for the defense. It is also ironic that Russia, which until recently was ruled by Communists who tried to banish all religion, would now consider disrespecting a church to be worthy of prosecution. It appears that the true motivation behind this case was to stifle protest against President Putin and to increase his power by forming an alliance with the church. The behavior and reasoning of the judge -- who criticized the defendants' "active position in life" and "tendency to express their opinions categorically" -- cannot plausibly be viewed as impartial. The sentence of two years imprisonment for their performance at the Cathedral is in any case draconian.
Without going into the merits or demerits of the Russian law relating to "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility," it is important to uphold the principles of fair trial and humane sentencing as fundamental responsibilities of a just government. I am a strong supporter of good relations with Russia and feel it is important to work together on issues regarding nuclear weapons reduction and energy production issues but the case of these young women receiving such harsh sentences for expressing themselves artistically and politically shows that the Russian judiciary lacks due process and respect for personal freedom of speech.