Pussy Riot: bad lawyers, or band betrayal? | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 11.03.2013
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Pussy Riot: bad lawyers, or band betrayal?

Three members of the Russian female protest band Pussy Riot were found guilty of hooliganism for their infamous punk "prayer." One has been given a suspended sentence – but now faces accusations of betrayal.

The first line in the chorus of the punk "prayer" by the Russian female protest group Pussy Riot went like this:

"Mother of God, blessed Virgin, drive out Putin!"

Five women stormed the altar of the Moscow Christ the Saviour Cathedral on February 21, 2012 wearing brightly colored facemasks to sing their protest song. Months later, three of them were jailed, just before a national vote that saw Vladimir Putin elected president.

The three women were charged with hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. In what many considered a show trial, they were sentenced to two years imprisonment, to be served in a penal colony.

The two other women who took part in the anti-government protest, whose names have never been made public, are said to have fled Russia to evade capture.

However, one of the women, 30-year-old Yekaterina, also known as Katya Samutsevich, was released from prison on appeal. Her conviction, however, has not been overturned.

Despite being free, the effects of the punk prayer still linger for Samutsevich. Some of the band's former lawyers have accused her of betraying Pussy Riot's cause.

A contentious video

A recent decision by a Moscow court ruled that an online video of the performance in the church was extremist and ordered that it be removed from the Internet. But thanks to international platforms like YouTube, it is impossible to put the Russian ban into practice globally. While browsing online recently, Samutsevich was relieved to see that the Internet punk prayer video has survived online for another day.

Yekaterina Samutsevich, (Photo: DW/Mareike Aden)

Samutsevich is being accused of betraying the band

The video is the most vital part of the protest Samutsevich staged with Masha Alyokhina, Nadya Tolokonnikova and two other band members back in February 2012. Her friends are serving their two year sentence in penal colonies.

"Even if just one of us had stayed in jail, it wouldn't have been fair," Samutsevich told DW. "We've recently turned to the European Court of Human Rights, because the whole trial was a farce. At the moment, everything in my life is about courts, verdicts and memories of the time spent in pre-trial custody. And as long as we aren't all acquitted, that won't change."

Under watchful eyes

Samutsevich is a small woman with boyish looks and a firm handshake. She celebrated her 30th birthday in pre-trial custody. Now she's living in a sparsely furnished, one-room flat in a high-rise apartment building in Moscow.

This is where Samutsevich finds shelter at the moment. She says it is a hideout for Pussy Riot members, but refuses to say more in the off-chance that the Russian secret service isn't already aware of it. All things considered, it's is an unlikely possibility.

"I'm taking the metro, I go outside, I don't hide and I'm not afraid. And so far there haven't been any problems, no attacks from radical believers or something," she says.

"If people let on that they have recognized me, then it's to show their support for what we have done. Recently I am noticing that people are following me, I guess they are the secret service. They don't even try to hide and are filming me on their mobile phones."

Prison blues

Speculation is running high in Moscow as to why Samutsevich ended up being the only Pussy Riot member to be released early from prison. During the appeal process, Samutsevich suddenly dismissed the legal team appointed by Pussy Riot.

Her new lawyer changed strategy and argued Samutsevich hadn't participated in the punk prayer, because church security had detained her as she entered the church building.

Members of the all-girl punk band 'Pussy Riot' (Photo: ANDREY SMIRNOV/AFP/GettyImages/DW)

The Pussy Riot trial drew international attention

This was the beginning of the end of Pussy Riot, says Mark Feigin, a former lawyer for the group. He is convinced Samutsevich struck a deal with Russian authorities - in an operation directed by the Kremlin.

"She struck the deal because she was under the influence of her cellmate," Feigin told DW in an interview. "The woman is called Irina Orlova and she had instructions to convince Katya to change her lawyers and to basically betray her friends. In return, a murder charge against Orlova was dropped. Katya was afraid of jail. But then she went too far: to whitewash herself, she started an attack on us lawyers."

To support his version of events, Feigin published letters that Masha Alyokhina and Nadia Tolokonnikova wrote to each other during the trial and in which they expressed concern their friend Katya had been brainwashed by her cellmate.

The Pussy Riot brand

"That is completely mad," Samutsevich says of the accusations. "The problem isn't even the defamation itself, but the fact that this is done by my former lawyers, who haven't got the right to accuse their former clients even after the contract ended."

Samutsevich accuses her former lawyers of striving for fame and money, at the expense of the three women. The lawyers talked her into signing blank sheets of paper, she says, that were later used to draw up contracts for a movie and to register Pussy Riot as a brand, all she says, without her knowledge.

Mark Feigin says everything happened as agreed with the women. He says that once the argument with Samutsevich started, the movie and the brand registration were stopped. The lawyer, who is himself an opposition activist, sounds bitter when talking about Pussy Riot.

"We had higher aims," he recalls. "It wasn't about some small commercial success. We thought that through the Pussy Riot trial we would be able to unmask and break Russia's unfair justice system and Putin's autocratic system. But we failed. The Kremlin succeeded in splitting Pussy Riot. And if the conflict with Katya hadn't happened we could have put up a much better fight."

One-hit wonders?

The public mudslinging between Samutsevich and her former lawyers has been going on for months. Whatever the role of the Russian authorities was before, now all they have to do is watch as Pussy Riot - a former symbol of anti-Putin protest - implodes from within.

Even though Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova called upon everybody to stop fighting for the sake of Pussy Riot, they can do little while inside the remote penal colonies where, by all accounts, they have their own struggles to contend with.

Surveys show that two-thirds of Russians think the two-year punishment given to the women was just. Even among other Putin opponents, solidarity with Pussy Riot has long faded. As for the band itself, almost half a year has passed since women identifying themselves with Pussy Riot were last seen in action.

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