Fears over freedoms in Russia post-Olympics

Nadia Tolokonnikova is whipped by Cossack Militia Men. Photo by Morry Gash / AP
Nadia Tolokonnikova is whipped by Cossack Militia Men. Photo by Morry Gash / AP

HOST INTRO: The 2014 Winter Olympics is certainly making its way to the history books as a controversial parade of expensive logistical fiascos. With the Games coming to an end on Sunday, recent arrests over peaceful protests have made people concerned about the future of human rights in Russia. Rachel Vianna reports on the crackdown against freedom of expression that some fear will happen once the international spotlight is off.

Hosting the Olympic games has been Russia’s chance to show its post-soviet identity to the world under a positive light.  However, political scientist, Tanya Domi says that instead of healing differences, President Putin has used the event to display his political supremacy.

DOMI: …during the course of the Olympics and in the run up to the Sochi games there has been a number of provocative actions taken by the government against a myriad of activists, whether you’re gay, you’re an environmentalist…whether you’re a journalist…If you’re an active member of civil society you are now on the margins of life in Russia because the government has essentially declared war against you.

In the past week there were 9 arrests of activists connected with the Sochi Games, the most prominent ones being those of Nadia Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, both members of the punk group Pussy Riot. The women were briefly detained on Tuesday under the pretext of being involved in a theft.

On Wednesday, they got together with 4 other people to stage a protest at the official banner at the Olympic site. They put on their Pussy Riot masks and Tolokonnikova started to utter a few words of protest onto a microphone. Several civilians and 4 Cossack militiamen proceeded to attack them with pepper spray and horsewhips, throwing their guitars into the trash and pushing them to the ground. A video of the scene was posted on youtube.

Jasmine Heiss, who had campaigned for Pussy Riot’s release with Amnesty International last year, sees this latest incident as a sign of things to come.

HEISS: I think that it is absolutely true that once the spotlight fades from Russia, from Sochi we’re going to see an even larger crackdown, we’re going to see the space for free expression and human rights in Russia be restricted even further very quickly.

Jane Buchanan of Human Rights Watch sees the incident as part of Putin’s strategy:

 BUCHANAN: It is all a part of a certainly bigger effort to intimidate people to send a strong signal to people of what can and will happen to them if they participate in an organized opposition.

Nadia Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina at the Amnesty International press conference. Photo by Rachel Vianna / Columbia Radio News
Nadia Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina at the Amnesty International press conference. Photo by Rachel Vianna / Columbia Radio News

Earlier this month, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were in New York, where they appeared at an Amnesty International concert for human rights. speaking through an interpreter, Tolokonnikova said the group intended to continue to hold individual acts of resistance, and encouraged others to do the same:

TOLOKONNIKOVA: Anybody can be pussy riot. You just need to put on a mask and stage an act of protest against something in your particular country, wherever that may be, that you consider particularly unjust.

At the concert, they led the crowd in a chant for freedom:

PUSSY RIOT: Russia will be free! OC: …THANK YOU

The women managed to leave Sochi on Thursday without further consequences. When questioned by journalists, spokesman for the International Olympic Committee, Mark Adams said he didn’t believe the arrests had anything to do with the Games.

ADAMS: As for Pussy Riot I understand that this, even though it happened in Sochi, wasn’t in the context of any protest against the games, as far as I understand.

Jennifer Heiss of Amnesty International said Putin has a lot to address in the coming months after the Games are over.

HEISS: …there is much more that Putin needs to do to in order to truly create a space for human rights in Russia. And perhaps most importantly, is to uphold rules, laws, to maintain an independent and strict court system that can give people justice instead of convicting people for who they are, what they believe.

Heiss said the Russian government has been trying to avoid a negative image since the games started, but the authorities actions during the Games have not helped their case.

Rachel Vianna, Columbia Radio News.

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