Russian prime minister says Pussy Riot punished enough

MedvedevRussian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Wednesday that the feminist punk rock trio whose jailing led to international outcry had spent enough time behind bars and should be freed.

Three members of Pussy Riot who staged a “punk prayer” against President Vladimir Putin in a Moscow cathedral were each sentenced last month to two years in prison for "hooliganism." The punishment was slammed by Western leaders and human rights groups as overly harsh and repressive after a trial that drew global attention from stars such as Madonna and Sting.

Russian media quoted Medvedev as saying that he was disgusted by what the women had done, but that continuing to imprison them seemed “unproductive.” He said they had already been adequately punished by spending five months in detention before trial, RIA Novosti reported.

His words raised hopes among Pussy Riot supporters that the trio might be freed in October, when a court hears their appeal.

However, one of their defense attorneys, Mark Feigin, cautioned the Reuters news agency that Medvedev "does not have the authority. He's not a politically influential figure in Russia's authoritarian hierarchy."

Before the women were sentenced last month, Putin said they shouldn’t be judged too harshly. However, it was widely believed that a light sentence would make Putin appear to have given in to pressure. The defendants could have faced as long as seven years in prison for their charges; state prosecutors had sought jail terms of three years each.

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Photo: Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev speaks at a meeting with activists of the United Russia party in the city of Penza southeast of Moscow on Wednesday. Credit: Dmitry Astakhov / Associated Press / RIA Novosti


Must Reads: Cash crunch, bikes and a Russian battlefield

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From doing battle over Russian cottages to biking to freedom in a Brazilian prison, here are five stories you shouldn't miss from this last week in global news:

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: An inmate pedals a stationary bike to charge a battery at a prison in Santa Rita do Sapucai, Brazil. Credit: Felipe Dana / Associated Press


Gambia, Iraq executions buck worldwide abolitionist trend

Protesters in Senegal denouncing Gambian executions
Human rights advocates the world over have been shocked and outraged by Gambia's first executions in 27 years and an escalation in hangings in Iraq that has already sent 91 to their deaths this year.

GlobalFocusThe rash of executions in the two countries -- nine in Gambia last week and 21 in Iraq on Monday alone -- are particularly disturbing for the targeting of prisoners convicted on what appear to be politically instigated charges in secretive and unfair trials, international law experts said.

Yet as lamentable as the recent death row purges may be to those who monitor and censure human rights abuses, they are in stark contrast to a global trend toward abolition of the death penalty and de facto moratoriums on executions in an ever-larger number of countries.

About two-thirds of the 196 countries tracked by Amnesty International  have renounced the death penalty in law or in practice, the London-based rights champions calculate. That has grown from only 16 countries that had outlawed executions before Amnesty launched its global campaign to eradicate the death penalty in 1977.

"Even in countries like China, while we don’t know how many they have executed, we do know that they have reduced the number of crimes that can be punished by death and they have reduced the number of people executed in recent years dramatically," Christof Heyns, assigned by the United Nations to monitor extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said in a telephone interview from his home in Pretoria, South Africa.

On behalf of the world body's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Heyns delivered a message to Gambian President Yahya Jammeh this week to "strongly condemn" the autocrat's proclaimed intent to execute all 48 death row inmates in the tiny West African country by mid-September. Nine were executed last week, Jammeh's government confirmed Monday, and the remaining 39 condemned prisoners have been moved from their cells to the execution site.

Heyns' letter demanded that Gambia refrain from any further executions, calling last week's deaths "a major step backwards for the country, and for the protection of the right to life in the world as a whole.” The U.N. agency rebuke joined others from Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, European nations and an expression of "great concern" from the United States, which itself ranks high on annual rights agencies' lists of countries with the most executions.

Gambia had last executed a prisoner in 1985, and had adhered to the practice increasingly prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa of reducing the list of crimes for which the death penalty can be applied as well as the number of capital sentences, noted Sandra L. Babcock, a law professor at Northwestern University and founder of its Center for International Human Rights.

Babcock attributes the Gambia executions to "the whim of an unpredictable and, by all accounts, unbalanced dictator," and she sees little threat of Jammeh's crackdown inspiring emulation.

"It's an exception to the general rule that once a nation heads down that path of refusing to carry out executions, that it leads to abolition as a matter of law over time," said Babcock, whose center maintains a database on the Death Penalty Worldwide.

Iraq's mounting zeal for executions is the more disturbing, Babcock said, as many of the 1,000-plus condemned Iraqis were convicted of treason or terrorism, often "thinly disguised justification for prosecuting political opponents."

Iraq has long featured in the dubious ranks of the Top Five countries carrying out the most executions each year. In 2011, China led Amnesty's list with executions estimated at more than 1,000, but it also eliminated the death penalty for 13 crimes that previously could draw the ultimate punishment. Iran acknowledged executing at least 360 people, followed by Saudi Arabia with 82 reported executions, Iraq with 68 and the United States 43.

Despite the rise in executions in some of the most active "retentionist" nations, as the rights groups refer to those that haven't signed on to the international covenant that defines the death penalty as a human rights violation, there are positive trends even in areas where the death penalty long enjoyed broad public support, the law experts said.

The Philippines abolished capital punishment six years ago, and all republics of the former Soviet Union except Belarus have renounced the death penalty or ceased carrying it out. Malaysia and Singapore are reconsidering whether all drug-trafficking crimes should be death-penalty eligible, and China is conducting a review of all death sentences, Babcock said. All of Europe is abolitionist, and most of Latin America -- with the glaring exception of the Caribbean states -- have ceased executions.

The only two highly developed democracies that continue to execute are the United States and Japan, the rights groups note. And abolitionists are regaining traction in Japan that was lost 17 years ago when the Aum Shinrikyo cult attacked Tokyo subway riders with sarin gas, killing 13 and poisoning 6,000.

Moving the United States into the execution-free category is going to take time because of the 50 separate state penal codes and popular support for the death penalty in some regions, Babcock said.

But she pointed out that the rising cost of keeping the death penalty on the books in states like California, with 729 on death row, is beginning to make inroads with death penalty supporters who have been unmoved by the moral arguments against the state taking lives.

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--Follow Carol J. Williams on twitter.com/cjwilliamslat

 Photo: Protesters gathered outside the Gambian Embassy in Senegal on Thursday to demand President Yahya Jammeh halt the mass execution of prisoners. Two of those executed by Gambia last week were Senegalese, including a woman. The banner reads "Gambia. Stop the reign of fear." Credit: Seyllou / AFP/Getty Images


Russia's Putin lives like a 'galley slave' with jets, yachts, limos, report says

Putin high lifeMOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir Putin once lamented that he works "like a galley slave" to improve the life of his countrymen.

But according to a report compiled by two prominent opposition politicians, the Russian leader more often toils in the opulence of one of 20 state-owned palaces and jets across the country and around the world via a fleet of 58 aircraft.

The reclusive president who rose from the KGB ranks to lead post-Soviet Russia for the past dozen years also has access to a fleet of yachts, luxury cars and a $700,000 designer watch collection, says the report, "The Life of a Galley Slave," published Tuesday by reformist former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov and Solidarity movement activist Leonid Martynyuk.

"In a country where more than 20 million people barely make ends meet, the luxurious life of the president is an obnoxious and cynical provocation,” Nemtsov and Martynyuk wrote.

There are the opulent waterfront villas on Russia’s Black Sea and Baltic Sea coasts and along the banks of the scenic Volga and Yenisei rivers. An 86-acre retreat near Moscow boasts a spa with massaging showers and herbal baths, the report says.

Putin’s “Aviapark” allegedly costing about $1 billion, the regime critics said, includes 15 helicopters and 43 planes, one outfitted with an interior crafted by famed Russian jewelers and artists and equipped with a $75,000 toilet.

The annual upkeep on one of his four yachts, Sirius, which features a wine cellar and cascading pools, costs as much as 1,200 Russian pensioners are paid in a year, Nemtsov and Martynyuk calculated.

Putin declared in his last income statement that he owns three Russian-made cars, the report said, while the favorite of his state fleet is an armored Mercedes-Benz with a 14-foot interior with special holders for crystal glasses.

A galley slave? More like a Persian Gulf monarch, the authors asserted.

Dmitry Peskov, Putin's press secretary, brushed off the alleged high living as the leader's legitimate trappings.

"It's all state property," Peskov told the Kommersant daily newspaper, "and Putin, as the country’s elected president, legally uses it."

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-- Khristina Narizhnaya

Photo: The cover of "The Life of a Galley Slave," by opposition leaders Boris Nemtsov and Leonid Martynyuk. The report contends Russian President Vladimir Putin wallows in luxury at state expense, despite assertions that he works like a slave for his country. Credit: Associated Press


Greenpeace scales Russian oil platform to protest Arctic drilling

Greenpeace

Greenpeace activists scaled a frigid Russian oil platform on Friday to draw attention to the dangers of drilling for petroleum in the Arctic, warning that a spill could sully nature reserves long before crews are able to clean it up.

The six environmentalists were blasted with icy water as they hung from the side of the Prirazlomnaya platform, then pelted with metal objects, Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo wrote, sending updates on Twitter as he and five other activists tried to hold their ground.

After 15 hours, they decided to come down for their safety. The activists returned to a Greenpeace ship to get medical attention, Greenpeace media officer Myriam Fallon said.

The Russian energy company subsidiary that owns the platform, Gazprom Neft Shelf, said in a statement emailed to Bloomberg and the Associated Press that the activists had rejected an offer to come aboard for a “constructive dialogue.” Work on the platform off the northeastern coast of Russia was proceeding normally, it said.

Gazprom has been gearing up to become the first company to produce oil from the Arctic, which is believed to have the biggest untapped oil reserves on the planet. Greenpeace and other environmental groups say the drilling threatens to devastate the fragile region.

Continue reading »

A deadly denouement for foreign troops in Afghanistan

U.S. soldier at remote Afghan base
The Netherlands pulled out of Afghanistan two years ago. Canada brought home its contingent last year. France, the fifth-largest contributor of troops to the International Security Assistance Force, will exit the war by the end of this year. New Zealand soldiers will be home by April.

GlobalFocusCommitment to the 130,000-strong force fighting to drive Taliban and Al Qaeda militants from their Afghan strongholds has been eroding since the U.S. announcement three years ago that defense and security will be handed over to Afghans by the end of 2014. Analysts say that proclamation of a mission deadline was premature and fired a starting gun for a haphazard exodus driven by domestic political pressures rather than meeting benchmarks for a mission accomplished.

The U.S.-led campaign to defeat insurgents has had its successes, and life for average Afghans has markedly improved since the U.S.-led invasion nearly 11 years ago, security experts say. But the ultimate goal of leaving a stable Afghanistan when the drawdown is finished is now imperiled by a deadly phenomenon many see as inspired by the signaled exits:  Afghans in the green uniforms of police and militia recruits have been turning their guns on their foreign trainers.

Of the 237 U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan this year, according to icasualties.org, at least 40 died at the hands of supposedly allied Afghans. Some of the turncoats are suspected Taliban infiltrators, while others appear to be acting on individual grievances and rising anti-American sentiment. 

"Green-on-blue killings are as devastating a tactic in Afghanistan as were IEDs [improvised explosive devices] in Iraq. This is the most dangerous tactical challenge that U.S. forces have faced in the war," Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security said of the rash of "insider" killings.

The betrayals throw into question a core U.S. conviction that Afghans are loyal partners eager to learn from foreign soldiers how to defend and protect their homeland, Exum said. They also wear down the willingness of ISAF's 40-plus contributing nations to send troops into a volatile and dangerous end game, he said.

"There's been a lot of patience from the United States and other troop-contributing nations to send soldiers to fight and sometimes die in the face of combat with the Taliban, but there's a lot less patience with sending soldiers to be shot in the back by their Afghan colleagues," Exum said.

Ahmad Majidyar, a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute who briefs U.S. troops ahead of deployment on the social complexities of his native Afghanistan, likewise sees the insider killings as a consequence of Afghans fearing that the foreigners are heading for the exits.

"With the announcement of a withdrawal timeline, you see a lot of people hedging their bets," he said of tribal leaders worried about Taliban fighters regaining sway over their territory. "It has emboldened the Taliban. Their strategy now is just to wait out the coalition forces."

Majidyar cites the impending departures of French and New Zealand troops as decisions driven by domestic political concerns "rather than a policy based on security realities on the ground." That sends a bad message, he added, to both friendly and enemy forces.

Security force trainees are ordinary young Afghan men, with friends and relatives who sympathize with the Taliban, notes Sarah Chayes, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She has spent most of the last decade in Afghanistan on development projects and has worked as an advisor to the U.S. military.

"It’s just demographics," she said of recruits who mingle with Taliban supporters when they visit their home villages or talk over tea. "Everyone is vulnerable to being recruited by extremists because, frankly, the propaganda is fairly convincing: The [Afghan] government is profoundly and abusively corrupt in a structured way that the international community hasn’t paid much attention to."

David Cortright of the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies sees the insider killings as a sign that the U.S. strategy to hand over security to allied regional militias is doomed, as was the Soviet effort in the 1980s to mold Afghanistan into an ideological ally.

"A political option needs to be pursued," he said, embracing a Rand Corp. blueprint for Afghan peace talks drafted last year. It proposes U.N. oversight of a forum including the government of President Hamid Karzai, rival political forces and the Taliban, with the United States and Afghanistan's neighbors conducting parallel talks.

Cortright acknowledges there is little appetite in the international community for any new Afghan initiative, especially one including the Taliban and in the throes of a U.S. presidential election. But he argues that the social gains achieved over the last decade are at risk if Afghanistan collapses into civil war when the foreign troops leave, and that the chances of the military mission delivering a lasting peace are "close to zero."

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Photo: A U.S. soldier rests at Forward Operating Base Joyce in Afghanistan's Kunar province. Credit:  Jose Cabezas/AFP/GettyImages


Must Reads: Tigers, Putin opponents and a secret summer retreat

Tiger

From Russians protesting against Vladimir Putin to the woes befalling Israeli sperm, here are the five stories you shouldn't miss from this week in global news:

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Photo: A tiger walks past a vehicle carrying tourists at Ranthambore National Park in Ranthambore, India. Credit: Mustafa Quraishi / Associated Press


Russian punk band's plight galvanizes artists, rights groups, leaders

German politicians protest Pussy Riot sentences
The prison sentencing Friday of members of the band Pussy Riot by a Russian court has united a diverse list of pop stars, human rights advocates and political leaders from around the world who view the imprisonment of the band as a shocking example of Kremlin repression.

Paul McCartney, Madonna, Sting, Bjork and up-and-coming punksters were joined by the U.S. government, the European Union, Human Rights Watch and a civil society foundation headed by former world chess champion Garry Kasparov in expressing concern for the fate of freedom of speech in Russia.

The two-year prison sentences handed down by a Russian court after a widely denounced trial galvanized the disparate voices and appeals for clemency for the band members, whose February "punk prayer" for Russian leader Vladimir Putin's downfall was met with what is viewed as a concerted effort to stifle dissent in post-Soviet Russia.

Photos: Russian punk band members sentenced to 2 years in prison

Commentaries posted to media websites in the United States and Europe condemned the Russian leadership for punishing the trio for staging a political protest stunt at Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral, which prosecutors branded "premeditated hooliganism" and charged the women with a hate crime.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich stood in handcuffs in a glassed-in dock of the Moscow courtroom as the verdict was read and witnesses were cited accusing them of sacrilege and Satanic gestures in the hallowed temple of the Russian Orthodox Church. The judge's reading was interrupted by a blast of punk rock music from an apartment across the street from the courtroom, The Times' Sergei Loiko reported from the scene. At least 60 supporters protesting outside the courthouse, including Kasparov, were arrested and taken away by police.

While Pussy Riot was little known outside Moscow alternative music circles until the cathedral protest six months ago -- despite provocative stunts including nudity and public orgies -- it has soared to international attention since then as a symbol of reinvigorated Kremlin repression of dissent and artistic expression.

"The United States is concerned about both the verdict and the disproportionate sentences handed down by a Moscow court in the case against the members of the band Pussy Riot and the negative impact on freedom of expression in Russia," the U.S. State Department said in a statement read by spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. "We urge Russian authorities to review this case and ensure that the right to freedom of expression is upheld."

Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, warned Moscow that by punishing the women it was violating commitments to respect individual rights and freedoms.

"This sentence is disproportionate. Together with the reports of the band members' mistreatment during their pre-trial detention and the reported irregularities of the trial, it puts a serious question mark over Russia's respect for international obligations of fair, transparent and independent legal process," Ashton said in a statement.

A flood of comments and criticism via Twitter drew in activists of all ilks, including the Occupy Wall Street movement, which retweeted a comment that the trio being accused of undermining the social order in Russia was "possibly the proudest charge one could have."

Some commentaries, like an unsigned posting on the Russia Today news site, described the Pussy Riot case as a lightning rod for the clash of traditional concepts of morality and the hedonistic excesses of alternative art.

"It seems that the Russian girls, whatever we think about this sort of ‘art,’ accidentally put their finger on one the most sensitive issues not only for Russia, but for many people worldwide," the article observed. "What are the moral limitations of the global community, where habitual views, norms and rules are eroding?"

Other tweets likened the Russian government's intervention on behalf of the Russian Orthodox Church to the attempts of conservative U.S. politicians, like failed Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, to enshrine fundamentalist Christian beliefs in social policies on contraception and extramarital sex.

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Free-speech advocates worldwide protest Russian punk band's sentence

--Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles 

Photo: German parliamentarian Renate Kuenast and Federal Human Rights Commissioner Markus Loening join supporters of the Russian female punk band Pussy Riot outside the Russian embassy in Berlin on Friday. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

 


Free-speech advocates worldwide protest Russian punk band's sentence

Pussy Riot supporters protest in Munich
From Paris to Hollywood, free-speech advocates reacted with outrage Friday at the two-year prison sentences handed down by a Moscow court against the feminist punk-rock trio Pussy Riot for a protest stunt in a Moscow cathedral against Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

The three young women have already been jailed for five months for the "punk prayer" performed at Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral in February that the government has treated as a criminal act rather than the statement of political opposition the rockers say they were making.

"I am concerned about the effect that the penalty on the three female musicians will have on the development and freedom of Russian civil society,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in Berlin. “Engaged citizens and artists and their freedom of expression should be part of any lively democratic society, including Russia.”

PHOTOS: Russian punk band members sentenced to 2 years in prison

Amnesty International, which had appealed for the women's release as part of a worldwide outcry against the Putin regime's harsh reaction, called Friday's guilty verdict "a bitter blow" for freedom of expression in today's Russia.

The conviction of the musicians on hooliganism charges inspired protests and solidarity rallies in about two dozen cities around the world, and fueled fresh demonstrations in Moscow. Hundreds turned out at Igor Stravinsky Square in central Paris to hail the women as martyrs to the cause of freedom. Smaller crowds rallied in Kiev, Ukraine; Barcelona, Spain; Berlin, Belgrade, Serbia; London; and Washington, D.C.

Supporters of the jailed trio pulled the band's signature knit ski masks over the heads of statues in the Moscow Metro, as did demonstrators in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. Leading opposition figures, including former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, were detained outside the Moscow courtroom where the verdict was handed down.

Even Russia's Orthodox Church, on whose behalf authorities accused the provocative rockers of insulting religious believers, was appealing for clemency for the women, the RIA Novosti news agency reported, citing a statement issued by the church hierarchy.

"We ask the authorities to show mercy to the convicts, hoping that they will not repeat their blasphemous actions,” the Supreme Council of the Russian Orthodox Church was quoted as saying in the statement.

Putin and the Russian justice system have come in for harsh criticism from human rights groups and leading artists for what has been seen as an attempt to use the courts to punish critics. Paul McCartney on Thursday joined the chorus of famous musicians calling on the Kremlin to free the women and respect Russians' right to speak their minds. Madonna, Sting, Bjork, Pete Townsend, the Pet Shop Boys and other artists had earlier appealed on behalf of the rockers.

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--Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles

Photo: A masked activist of Amnesty International shouts slogans at a rally in Munich, Germany, on Friday in protest of the prison sentences handed down by a Moscow court to three Russian women of the Pussy Riot punk rock band for singing a "punk prayer" against Vladimir Putin. Credit: Lennart Preiss/Associated Press


Two years in prison for anti-Putin Russian punk band provocateurs

MOSCOW -- The three members of a Russian female punk rock band who staged a colorful protest against Russian leader Vladimir Putin in a church here earlier this year were each sentenced on Friday to two years in prison on convictions of premeditated hooliganism.

The musicians, whose band is named Pussy Riot, have already been jailed for more than five months after having entered a Russian Orthodox cathedral in February dressed in festive outfits and hoods to perform what they termed a "punk prayer" asking that the Virgin Mary "drive Putin away."

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, had faced up to seven years behind bars on charges of a premeditated act of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. The trio, whose supporters held rallies across Europe on Friday to protest the sentencing, had pleaded not guilty.

PHOTOS: Russian punk band members sentenced to 2 years in prison

The case has generated international human rights concerns and following the sentencing, Amnesty International strongly condemned the results as a "bitter blow" for freedom of expression in Russia.

In their February protest, the band members, garbed in sleeveless dresses and hoods with eyeholes, performed their act of political theater in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral before being hustled away by guards. 

At their more than three-hour court hearing Friday, the handcuffed rockers stood in a bulletproof cage as the verdict and sentence were read. At one point, loud punk rock music could be heard inside the courtroom, coming from a stereo in an apartment window across from the courthouse. Police rushed to cut off the electricity.

 The defendants "blatantly violated the public order in an Orthodox temple insulting the believers and causing them deep moral harm," the verdict read.

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-- Sergei L. Loiko

Photo: A supporter of the  punk band Pussy Riot wears a mask during a rally in St. Petersburg on Friday. Credit: Olga Maltseva / AFP / Getty Images


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