Russia may have made some steps forward towards social progress since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but it seems that President Vladimir Putin is doing everything he can to crack down on political dissent. And the new poster girls for this oppression are members of the feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot.
On August 17, three members of Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in prison after being found guilty of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred". The charges arose from a protest they staged in a Moscow cathedral in which they criticized Putin's policies. And the verdict came down despite international outcry.
Amnesty International has described the case as "emblematic of increased efforts by President Putin and his cronies to stifle free speech in Russia," and declared Pussy Riot to be prisoners of conscience.
"Say what you will about Pussy Riot: this may not be your kind of music. Some people find their shows offensive," said Michelle A. Ringuette, Chief of Campaigns & Programs for Amnesty International USA. "But it doesn't change the facts: Since March, these young women have been in jail and kept from their families, including small children, and they are being threatened with seven years imprisonment - all because of a peaceful protest song that lasted less than a minute."
Human Rights First called the verdict "the latest example of how Russia uses laws that are meant to combat hate crimes - extremism, incitement, and hostility or hatred statutes - to prosecute artists, independent media, and LGBT and other civil society groups."
The U.S. State Department issued the following statement: "The United States is concerned about both the verdict and the disproportionate sentences handed down by a Moscow court in the case against the members of the band Pussy Riot and the negative impact on freedom of expression in Russia. We urge Russian authorities to review this case and ensure that the right to freedom of expression is upheld."
Celebrities including Paul McCartney, Madonna, and Sting have voiced their support for Pussy Riot.
And tens of thousands of ordinary citizens of the world have signed petitions on their behalf.
But the Russian authorities apparently don't want to hear it, and are cracking down on Pussy Riot's supporters within that country. Chess champion and Russian opposition leader Garry Kasparov was beaten and arrested after he showed up at the sentencing. The police accused Kasparov of biting one of them - a charge he strongly denies. Other protesters at the sentencing were also arrested.
"We've been saying Putin is a dictator for years who doesn't care about the law. Today, he proved it," said Kasparov.