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Pussy Riot launches hunger strike to protest Russian prison conditions

An imprisoned member of the Russian punk group Pussy Riot has announced a hunger strike to protest harsh conditions. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova accuses officials of forcing inmates to work 17 hours a day and sleep only four.

In a letter published Monday on the group's blog, Tolokonnikova says inmates at the Mordovia prison work from 7:30 a.m. to after midnight in a shop that makes police uniforms. She also says the prison's deputy warden, whom she called a self-confessed Stalinist, threatened her last month, saying "Things never will be bad for you because there is nothing bad in the next world."

"This is an extreme measure but I am absolutely confident that this is the only possible way for me out of this situation," Tolokonnikova wrote in the lengthy letter. "I demand that we be treated as people and not slaves."

In August 2012, the 23-year-old mother received a two-year sentence for hooliganism when Pussy Riot delivered a "punk prayer," or musical protest against Russian President Vladimir Putin, in Moscow's main Orthodox cathedral. Many observers have accused authorities of deliberately sending Tolokonnikova to Mordovia, known for its Soviet-era network of gulag prison camps, to break her will.

Tolokonnikova wrote that prison administrators often beat prisoners or deny them food, water or the use of toilets as discipline. In one case, she wrote, administrators forced several prisoners to undress and sew naked to improve their performance in the workshop. Tolokonnikova also wrote that the prison administration has attempted to pit other prisoners against her, noting that they even punished a woman for drinking tea with her.

"The Mordovia inmates are afraid of their own shadows," she wrote, noting that any attempts to complain have led to more abuse.

mkg/dr (AFP, AP)