Bloomberg News

Khodorkovsky: Russia Discredited by Punk Girls Trial

August 06, 2012

Jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky said the trial and detention conditions of three members of a Russian all-female punk group facing a possible seven-year jail term are degrading and may amount to torture.

“I am very ashamed and hurt,” Khodorkovsky said in a letter published on his website today. “And not because of these girls -- the mistakes of youthful radicalism can be forgiven -- but for the state, which is profaning our Russia with its complete and utter lack of conscience.”

Members of the Pussy Riot band are on trial for hooliganism and inciting religious hatred after performing what they called a “punk prayer” in February inside Moscow’s Christ the Savior cathedral, the country’s main Christian Orthodox place of worship, targeting Vladimir Putin, who extended his 12-year rule in presidential elections in March.

Khodorkovsky, the former billionaire owner of Yukos Oil Co., says he was targeted by Putin for financing opposition parties, an accusation the Kremlin denies. Imprisoned for 13 years on charges of tax evasion, fraud and money-laundering, he received a second conviction with his business partner Platon Lebedev in December 2010 in the same courthouse where the Pussy Riot trial started last week.

‘Middle Ages’

“The word ‘trial’ is applicable here only in the sense in which it was used by the Inquisitors of the Middle Ages,” Khodorkovsky said in the letter about legal action against Pussy Riot written from a prison colony in the northern Karelia region town of Segezha. “We have been deprived of an honest and independent judiciary, of the opportunity to defend ourselves and to protect people from lawlessness.”

While it’s “customary” for defendants to remain silent about the conditions of their imprisonment, “the judge, of course, knows about this regime,” Khodorkovsky said. “Torture, perhaps?”

Maria Alekhina, 24, Ekaterina Samutsevich, 29, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, called for medical help at Moscow’s Khamovniki District Court last week after complaining about the conditions of the proceedings against them. They are woken at 5 a.m. and return to jail after midnight, depriving them of sleep and any prison meals. They are kept in a glass cage in the courtroom.

‘Tropical Fish’

“In the summer you feel like a tropical fish in that glass cage,” Khodorkovsky said. “It was hard for me and Platon -- two people -- to be in the aquarium together the whole day. I cannot even imagine how all three of those poor girls manage to fit in there at once.”

Khodorkovsky, whose case has become a symbol for concerns about the rule of law in Russia for investors, cited his own experience in describing the “ignominy” of confinement in an airless glass and steel box and being subjected to at least four body searches a day, including two daily procedures in prison in which defendants are forced to strip naked.

The accused are offered a packed dry lunch during recess in court -- “dry noodles, dry porridge,” he said. “I stopped eating in the second week of the trial: it was better to survive through the whole day on just water alone.”

Amnesty International has declared the punk band members prisoners of conscience and music stars including Madonna, Peter Gabriel and Sting have rallied to their defense. The defendants, who have been ordered to be held in pre-trial detention until January, rejected criminal charges of hooliganism at the start of their trial on July 30. They argued that their case should be treated as an administrative violation, while apologizing for upsetting religious sensibilities.

Well Enough

After ambulances were called for the three band members on Aug. 1, the Pussy Riot trial resumed as doctors determined the defendants are well enough for the proceedings, RIA Novosti cited Darya Lyakh, a spokeswoman for Moscow’s Khamovniki District Court, as saying.

Russians must confront the “ignominy of a great country, a country of world famous humanists and scientists, turning headlong into a backward Asiatic province,” Khodorkovsky said, urging people to send “words of hope” to the defendants.

The U.S. government on July 31 condemned the prosecution of the punk bank and charges against Russian anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny. Navalny faces as many as 10 years in jail after being charged last week with embezzling money from a state timber company, marking an escalation in Putin’s crackdown on the biggest unrest of his 12-year rule.

“These are not signs supporting those that hope for change in the new era of Putin,” Jim O’Neill, chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management who coined the BRICs acronym to describe large emerging markets, said in an e-mailed note today. “For a country with an average GDP per capita of around $15,000, these are issues that should be diminishing.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ilya Arkhipov in Moscow at iarkhipov@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at bpenz@bloomberg.net


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