article

05.08.13

How the Pussy Riot Girls Trial Fell Apart

When one of the Pussy Riot girls split from the rest, their trial fell apart and exposed their lawyers to unfair accusations. Now a former member of their legal team, Alisa Obraztsova, tells what happened because of Kremlin machinations.

The Pussy Riot story changed on October 1, 2012. It was the day when Ekaterina “Katya” Samutsevich dismissed her three lawyers. She said that her views were different from the strategy her fellow Pussy Riot defendants were following. She was visibly shaking when the court denied her claim to waive her lawyers. After a 20-minute break the court satisfied her request.  It was the first request that had been satisfied for any of the women or their lawyers since the court hearings began in the spring of 2011. On her way to the court she told fellow Pussy Riot members  Nadejda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina that from now everyone should fight for themselves. Previously these three young women, who had been arrested and charged together, were united.

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Police officers guard members of the all-girl punk band "Pussy Riot," from left, Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who are sitting in a glass-walled cage in a court in Moscow, on October 10, 2012. Russian appeals court ordered the release of one member of anti-Vladimir Putin punk band Pussy Riot ,Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, after giving her a suspended term but ordered two others, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, serve two years in a prison camp. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty)

No one doubted for a moment that their entire trial was political. The hearings mostly consisted of breaching the law: the court continued for 10 hours, the girls needed to beg the court to eat or use the bathroom, lawyers were not allowed to speak to them confidentially, and no one from the defense witness-list was heard. Some people still don’t look with favor on Pussy Riot’s controversial church performance, but most, especially those who attended the hearings, acknowledge that the court demonstrated not how dysfunctional the Russian legal system is, but the complete lack thereof.

What is the role of lawyers in a system where decisions are made by the Kremlin? What lawyers should have been chosen for defending three young political activists, who impinged on the grand head of the Russian Orthodox Church, who lives like a magnate and rules like he is representing a branch of the state?

[Feygin] advised them to claim the performance was about revolutionary action against Putin’s regime.

Pussy Riot members knew how the court would go and never expected real justice. They needed lawyers who were part of the Russian opposition world. Lawyers who would make their case to the Russian public and to the world. And they found them: Violetta Volkova was (and still is) the lawyer for one of Russia’s leaders of the opposition, Nikolay Polozov was defending Alexey Navalny, and Mark Feygin had a political career as a former deputy of State in the Duma and vice-major of Samara (one of the biggest cities in Russia).

They were perfect choices to combine both legal and political positions. All three of them had to choose whether or not to step into this case, because it was obvious that there would be consequences for their participation. They were fighting for the women inside and outside the courtroom throughout the spring and summer of 2012. They were taking questions from international journalists inside the prison, which is prohibited and lawyers may lose their license if they are caught. They were inviting famous people to attend the court so they could see the condition of the Russian legal system. They were collecting bail for the girls and collecting it from people not only around Moscow, but from all over the country. They were arguing with judge, because she didn’t allow journalists to attend the hearings. Simple things, yes, but crucial to help fight against the powerful bureaucracy and the Kremlin’s agenda.

A lot of worldwide stars showed their public support of their own accord. You cannot imagine someone asking Madonna to write “Free Pussy Riot” on her back. It was her decision because of her reaction to the media, which was built mostly because of these lawyers’ actions.  As a result of this worldwide pressure the Kremlin sentenced them to 2 years of instead of giving them up to 7 years. But know that the Kremlin is biding its time for fuller revenge.

During all these months in prison the girls had visitors from police investigators or people affiliated with them. They usually came early in the morning to persuade them to admit guilt, ask for mercy, or change lawyers. But the girls kept fighting and would not give in.

Everything changed in October. After waiving her lawyers, Katya took a little known lawyer from Tatarstan named Irina Khrunova, whose husband, Pavel Chikov, is a well-known Kremlin loyalist. By choosing her, Katya selects a person who has strong connections with the Kremlin, whose husband’s boss is President Putin, and who is capable of arranging an agreement with authorities—such as releasing his wife’s client, ruining the Pussy Riot community, deleting the political defense element of the case by dismissing their legal team, and decreasing the chances of winning the case in the European Court of Human Rights.

Then on October 10 Katya was released. Why? She herself said that she “wants to answer for what she has done” separately from her friends and hasn’t told a word about the true political nature of the trial. Her lawyer told me that she was with Nadejda and Maria only for 15 seconds and than she was taken away by the guard. Her lawyer cited an article in the criminal code about the preparation for a crime, saying that, in fact, Ekaterina had no chance to commit the crime because she was taken away before she could actually do so. So this 15 seconds of being on the ambone (the place where they made their performance in the church) Katya with her lawyer estimated as preparation for the crime. For months prior, Ekaterina along with Nadejda and Maria had been contradicting this fact. They all were insisting that their alleged crime was really an administrative infraction. (The fee for such an administrative infraction is approximately $30.) But her position changed. When her lawyer cited that what was done by Katya was just a preparation, this meant that in fact she agreed with the fact of committing the crime, previously denied by all of them.

Her two band members were still continuing to make political speeches during the court of appeal. She was released because the court decided that the 15 seconds was only preparation and she was taken off the ambone without fighting (which is also untrue—court records from the main hearings state the testimony of a guard who was removing Ekaterina who witnessed that she was fighting. The fact that one band member admitted the fact of the crime may not bode well for the decision of the European Court of Human Rights when the case will be examined there.

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An Amnesty International member holds a hand knitted Pussy Riot fan scarf to support the members of the Russian punk band, in Brussels on Sunday Feb. 17, 2013. Three members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years imprisonment for performing a protest song in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral. Although Ekaterina Samutsevich was conditionally released on appeal on 10 October, her two band mates, Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova remain in prison. (Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP)

She was released. Everyone was happy. Ekaterina was welcomed by much of the media—everyone wanted to interview her. She was asked about waiving her lawyers. And she started to talk.  She started saying that Pussy Riot is a feminist punk-band, who mostly fight for women’s rights, but not necessarily against Putin. She blamed the lawyers for focusing on politics, not on feminism. But the lawyers had written statements from their Pussy Riot clients laying out the defense strategy that they would be pursuing to prove that they had all agreed.  After this claim of hers was proved false, Ekaterina then started to say that her lawyers had stolen her keys and passport, which were given to Peter Verzilov (husband of one of fellow Pussy Riot member, Nadejda) with request that he give them to Katya’s father.

The first negative article against Pussy Riot defenders came quickly in the beginning of November in Kommersant. It said that the company “Web-Bio,” registered by Khronova, had applied for trademark registration and was already using it by concluding an agreement with Roast Beef Productions Ltd. for making the film Show Trial: Pussy Riot, better known as Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer under which the company already received 30,000 GBP, and will receive 170,000 GBP more and than 40 percent from the income. Ekaterina started to accuse her lawyers of fraud, saying that she never asked lawyers to register the trademark or conclude this agreement. In fact the agreement between Nadejda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, Ekaterina Samutsevich, and the company called ООО Kinokompaniya “Web-Bio” was signed in April, in which Pussy Riot members were entitling the company to register the trademark and the registered trademark should have been returned to them when all three would be released. This happened because there was an action in which Pussy Riot opponents got naked in the fountain and wrote on their bodies “Pussy Riot.” This was done to defend the women’s names from such usage. Lawyers were demanding that porn with the Pussy Riot name be removed from websites, that games be taken off Apple's iTunes, and that websites close where cheaters were collecting monies under the Pussy Riot name. Besides the agreement Pussy Riot members signed power of attorney for doing this to “Web-Bio” and lawyers. And of course all of them knew what was happening with Pussy Riot name and how it was used. The article was 100 percent false and biased from the Kremlin, which was discovered later, and even the lawyers were also working under the contract, ‘Web-Bio” came to a decision to return 25,000 GBP which the company received in February, which is confirmed by the statement of the head of the Roast Beef Productions Ltd. and terminated the agreement. No other sums were received. 

The lawyers have already applied for defending their reputation in court against media that was spreading false information and taking part in the discredit campaign. However, it is important to point this out now, even before the court makes its decision, because the future of the political lawyers depends on worldwide support, and who are now under the specter of arrest.

Bothered by its reputation “Web-Bio” also withdrawn all the trademark applications around the world. They firstly applied because they were enforced by the agreement and in fact were doing this after other people who were not connected with Pussy Riot at all applied for the trademark. This was a gesture of defending the client’s interest.

Russian society is still very responsive to the idea that all lawyers and Jews are liars and cheaters.

The campaign apotheosis came when Ekaterina applied in the bar association, complaining about lawyers, what could lead to loosing the lawyers’ license in December 2012. These news were shocking to Nadya and she threatened Katya to release the information about her release, if she won’t withdraw the claim.

Step by step the real grounds of Ekaterina’s release came out from written communication between Nadejda and Maria. The court declined Maria’s claim to delay her punishment till her son became 14, and then letters between Masha and Nadya in which they are accusing Katya of betrayal came out in the press. It was clearly stated that Katya made a deal with the government investigation office and the payment for her release was to disparage the girls’ lawyers and the main target in the Kremlin

’s campaign was Mr. Feygin because of his prominence. He guided Pussy Riot members to decline to accept the narrow view of their action in church as a form of political art. Instead he advised them to claim the performance as about revolutionary action against Putin’s regime. It’s not surprising then that the Kremlin has chosen him as a target. His background proved tricky for him, because he became the person who was in charge for all Pussy Riot activity that seemed commercial. Furthermore, he estimated all actions connected with the trademark as a mistake, and he should have thought that Kremlin would definitely use this short-sighted step for its own purposes. Such actions should have been left for the time when all three members had been released. Nevertheless, Feygin with his colleagues Volkova and Polozov are defending other members of political opposition, such as Sergey Udaltsov (one of the leaders) who is under house arrest now, and who is sharing the same destiny of such well-known people as China’s Liu Xiabo. From Feygin’s point of view, his destiny is closely connected with opposition in Russia and cleaning their reputation means cleaning it from the Kremlin’s defamation.

He was also a good target, because Russian society is still very responsive to the idea that all lawyers and Jews are liars and cheaters, especially taking into account the anti-Semitism myth which invisibly hovered above the whole Pussy Riot case.

After October 10 the cell where Ekaterina was held was disbanded and one woman called Olga Voznyak was put into Nadya’s cell, and the other, Irina Orlova, to Masha’s. Olga told Nadya that Ekaterina was very close with Irina. In a letter to Masha Nadya wrote that from “March till July they were arguing. After that investigators had a conversation with Irina (this was told by Katya) and their relations became ‘mother-daughter’ (told by Olga). Katya fell under Irina’s influence. Plus Katya was in unstable condition….was nervous before 10th.” Nadejda also wrote about the time from 27th-28th of September till Katya’s release. In a period of a few days beforev1st of October Irina started to persuade Katya that she should not be jailed. And she started to convince her to change lawyers and to personalize her guilt. Nadya also underlined that Katya had never told them about this reason for changing the lawyers. She is also taking Masha back to the time Katya changed her claim. She writes: “Do you remember, Katya told in her claim {court of appeal} that “difference in position {between Katya and lawyers}—formality” (talking about claim to the court to waive the lawyers). But it wasn’t a formality, it is the change of defending line on personalization….” Nadya also writes that she seems logically to continue to work with same lawyers: “The question of continuing to collaborate with lawyers came up…..That’s why I do not like the prospect to waive the lawyers with whom we are politically (!) one team, because of the phantom chance to be released earlier……We understand that if we take Katya’s lawyer, there are big chances that we will be put ‘in the soup’….I think that it doesn’t matter what we do our two years will stay with us……

…..I see that K. and M. {Nikolay and Mark} are ready to move forward. Politically. Do everything to keep the attention on the same level….” 

And Nadya was true, now with the new defendant’s team, the court makes the same decisions as with previous. Why did such change work with Katya but doesn’t help the other two? Maybe changing of lawyers is just a cover to disguise the betrayal? How could this be explained when 2 mothers are now in penal colonies and the woman who has no children is free? All three of them were on the ambone so why is only one who recognized the fact of the crime now released? Changing position was a betrayal, but no-one would go out from prison and say that he or she betrayed his friends. In handwritten letters published by Nadya’s father on the Echo Moscow website Nadya writes that she had not received a letter from Katya during all these months and “she {Katya} is politically dead for her. There cannot be any collaboration in future.” The only good explanation for Katya was to claim that her now former lawyers were unskilled. On April 9 she for the second time applied in the Bar Association of Moscow area asking for them to deprive Violetta Volkova of lawyer’s license (the first time this request was rejected). To cover the agreement with authorities she has no other variant than to attack her former lawyers, telling them about stolen passport or copyright, which future is discussed in other letters between Nadya and Masha:

“Maria: ‘I’ve talked with Mark about business for long time. And I think that it is needed to be done….and as main point—we can do something good on monies that we receive… Otherwise, {brand} will get in someone’s hand who will just earn money. It is a difficult decision for me, but it is so….”

Nadya: “Nothing bad is in this: we can use the strategy of ‘small good acts’ and use capitalism for social needs. Maybe this is better than self-denying ascetic teenage subculture anarchism. Maybe our “good acts” tell more to people than we may say from ourselves (taking into account our bad reputation for Russian people). I think that we use brand…”

When Katya changed the line of defense she produced the strongest effect likely to ruin the Pussy Riot community and to bury it with the former lawyers’ team reputation. Zealous to whitewash herself Ekaterina in collusion with media loyal to the Kremlin attacked the lawyers. As a result Nadejda and Maria are in the most strict penal colonies in the world, and Mark Feygin, Violetta Volkova, and Nikolay Polozov are rebuilding their reputations again.