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Pussy Riot members released from Russian prison ahead of Sochi Olympics

Amnesty measure criticized as latest publicity stunt amid international outcry over Russia's human rights record and anti-gay laws
Monday, December 23, 2013
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KRASNOYARSK, Russia — The last two imprisoned members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot walked free Monday, criticizing the amnesty measure that released them as a publicity stunt, with one calling for a boycott of the Winter Olympics to protest Russia’s human rights record.

Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were granted amnesty last week in a move largely viewed as the Kremlin’s attempt to soothe criticism of Russia’s human rights record before the Sochi Games in February.

Filipp RomanovMaria Alekhina, center, a member of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot speaks to the media at the Committee against Torture after being released from prison, in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia on Monday, Dec. 23, 2013.

Filipp Romanov< AP
Maria Alekhina, center, a member of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot speaks to the media at the Committee against Torture after being released from prison, in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia on Monday, Dec. 23, 2013.

Alexander Roslyakov, APNadezhda's Tolokonnikova speaks to the media after leaving a prison in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, Monday, Dec. 23, 2013.

Alexander Roslyakov, AP
Nadezhda’s Tolokonnikova speaks to the media after leaving a prison in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, Monday, Dec. 23, 2013.

“I’m calling for a boycott of the Olympic Games,” Tolokonnikova said. “What is happening today – releasing people just a few months before their term expires – is a cosmetic measure.”

The amnesty – part of a wide measure passed last week by the parliament – and President Vladimir Putin’s pardoning last week of onetime oil tycoon and political rival Mikhail Khodorkovsky freed some of the most prominent convicts who were sentenced in politically-tainted cases .

But it also gives them new freedom to launch criticism of Putin’s Russia amid intense attention from international news media.

Khodorkovsky on Sunday told a news conference that his release shouldn’t be seen as indicating that there aren’t other “political prisoners” in Russia.

Andrei Makarkin of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies think tank cautioned that the releases didn’t foretell a change in the Kremlin’s hard line on criticism.

“If someone else challenges the government on issues that it considers important, it will show no clemency,” he said.

Another member of Pussy Riot, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was previously released on a suspended sentence. All three were found guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred and sentenced to two years in prison for a guerrilla performance at Moscow’s main cathedral in March 2012.

The band members said their protest was meant to highlight their concern about increasingly clos e ties between the state and the church.

Russia’s parliament passed the amnesty bill last week, allowing the release of thousands of inmates. Alekhina and Tolokonnikova, who were due for release in March, qualified for amnesty because they have small children.

There has been an international outcry over Russia’s human rights record, including a law passed earlier this year that bans so-called gay propaganda among minors, which gay groups in Russia and abroad say feeds the existing enmity toward gay people in the country.

Tolokonnikova walked out of a prison in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk on Monday, smiling to reporters and flashing a V sign.

“How do you like our Siberian weather here?” said Tolokonnikova, wearing a down jacket but no hat or scarf in the minus 25 Celsius (minus 13 Fahrenheit) air. Tolokonnikova said that she and Alekhina will set up a human rights group to help prisoners.

Tolokonnikova said the way prisons are run reflect th e way the country is governed.

“I saw this small totalitarian machine from the inside,” the 24-year-old said. “Russia functions the same way the prison colony does.”

Alekhina, who was released earlier on Monday from a prison outside Nizhny Novgorod, said she would have stayed behind bars to serve her term if she had been allowed.

“If I had a chance to turn it down, I would have done it, no doubt about that,” she told Dozhd TV. “This is not an amnesty. This is a hoax and a PR move.”

She said the amnesty bill covers less than 10 percent of the prison population and only a fraction of women with children. Women convicted of grave crimes, even if they have children, are not eligible for amnesty.

Alekhina said that prison officials didn’t give her a chance to say goodbye to cellmates, but put her in a car and drove her to the train station in downtown Nizhny Novgorod. Before seeing her family and friends, she met with local rights activists and said she will work on defending human rights.

Days earlier, Putin pardoned Khodorkovsky, a former oil tycoon and once Russia’s richest man, who spent a decade in prison after challenging Putin’s power. Khodorkovsky flew to Germany after release and said he will stay out of politics. He pledged, however, to fight for the release of political prisoners in Russia.

Russia’s Supreme Court earlier this month ordered a review of the Pussy Riot case, saying that a lower court did not fully prove their guilt and didn’t take their family circumstances into consideration when reaching the verdict.

Also on Monday, the European Court of Human Rights said it will review a complaint filed by band members over their treatment while on trial in Moscow in 2012.

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