10 Int'l J. Civ. Soc'y L. 3 (2012)
Russia: Pussy Riot, Blasphemy, and Freedom of Religion or Belief

handle is hein.journals/ijcsl10 and id is 205 raw text is: International Journal of Civil Society Law

RUSSIA: PussY RIOT, BLASPHEMY, AND FREEDOM OF RELIGION OR BELIEF
By GERALDINE FAGAN
Three young women from the Russian feminist art collective Pussy Riot were handed down two-
year prison terms on 17 August for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred (Criminal Code,
Article 213, Part 2). The three had performed a short punk prayer immediately in front of the
iconostasis in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on 21 February. The sentence of one
member was changed to suspended on appeal on 10 October.
These disproportionate punishments have given rise to widespread concern. But it should
also be noted that disturbing people within a place of worship, in the way the group did, does
violate the freedom of religion or belief of those within the Cathedral who were not part of the
group. Yet there is an aspect of this case that poses a serious threat to everyone's freedom of
religion or belief throughout Russia. For the way this trial has been handled indicates that the
state authorities are using that case to advance their intensifying restrictions on freedom of
religion and belief, Forum 18 News Service has found.
Given  the Moscow    Patriarchate's classification  of the incident as blasphemy
(koshchunstvo) on 3 April and President Vladimir Putin's reference to it as a witches' sabbath
on 6 April, many observers have interpreted the trial as a sign of deepening relations between the
Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin.
Yet a marked shift in the nature of the state's response to the Pussy Riot incident suggests
that the Kremlin is acting not to defend Orthodox Christianity. Instead the state appears to be
seeking justification for greater restrictions on the linked freedoms of religion and belief and of
expression, Forum 18 notes.
Opposition to Orthodox Christianity is equated with criminal activity in the initial state
prosecution documentation against Pussy Riot, seen by Forum 18. Opposing the Orthodox
world and even disparaging the spiritual foundations of the state are cited in 28 May 2012
charges against one member drawn up by Moscow city police investigator Artem Ranchenkov.
These are repeated in the July 2012 indictment against all three women by the public prosecutor
of the city's Central Administrative District, Denis Popov, published by Novaya Gazeta
newspaper on 19 July.
Under the 1993 Constitution, The Russian Federation is a secular state. No religion may be
established as a state or obligatory one. (Article 14.1).
However, such references are absent from the 17 August 2012 verdict by Judge Marina
Syrova of Moscow's Khamovnichesky District Court, seen by Forum 18. Instead of disparaging
the spiritual foundations of the state, for example, the defendants are found to have violated the
constitutional foundations of the state by inciting religious hatred. Ranchenkov, the police
investigator responsible for the earlier charges, was transferred to another department as the
Pussy Riot case reached its height in late June, reportedly in a mere career manoeuvre,
according to Interfax on 12 September.
A shift in the Kremlin's response to the Pussy Riot incident also suggests that the senior state
authority was not motivated to prosecute by moral outrage. Initially, President Putin appeared
unconcerned by the punk prayer. Smiling and joking with female journalists on the eve of the 8

October 2012

Vol. X, Issue 4

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