By now you’ve probably heard the news: Pussy Riot ended up behind bars again, albeit briefly, in Olympic Sochi. Leading workers’ rights activist Semyon Simonov told The Nation he was showing Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova around downtown Sochi on Tuesday when law enforcement officers roughly detained their group of nine people and carted them off to a police station, ostensibly to question them over the theft of a purse at their hotel.
The purse was an excuse—the real reason the Sochi and Moscow activists were detained “is to pressure us so that there aren’t any protests during the Olympics, so that people who came to the Olympics can’t find out what is going on in our city, region and country, what problems we have,” said Simonov, who himself has documented abuse of migrant workers during the construction of Sochi’s new sports venues and hotels.
One of these problems is the intimidation and imprisonment of activists like Yevgeny Vitishko, who was taken to serve a three-year prison sentence on Tuesday in what Human Rights Watch called a travesty of justice directly related to his agitation against Olympics-related environmental damage. (Pussy Riot is in town to film a music video for the song “Putin Will Teach You to Love the Motherland,” which Tolokonnikova has said “is dedicated to the Bolotnaya Square prisoners, the corrupt Olympics, the environmentalist Vitishko and the suppression of freedoms in Russia.”) And while demonstrations are technically possible in Sochi, strict regulations and police actions like the Pussy Riot purse ruse have resulted in a de facto protest ban.
Under pressure from the International Olympic Committee, the Russian authorities agreed to allow pre-approved demonstrations in a specially designated protest zone after a presidential decree initially banned all protests in Sochi from January 7 through March 21. But the protest zone is located in Khosta, a quiet district located about 10 miles from the nearest Olympic venues and about ten miles from downtown Sochi.
“The purpose of an action is to attract attention, but here it loses all meaning,” Simonov said. “No one will see it, no one but dogs walk here.”
Even in this isolated place, all demonstrations must be approved in advance by the police, security services and city administration, who are apparently denying permission to those who want to actually protest something: This weekend, local environmentalists were denied permission for an action against Vitishko’s imprisonment. So far the only person to have successfully held a demonstration there is a woman who held a solo picket in support of President Vladimir Putin. (Russia’s Communist Party, which has unfortunately offered relatively toothless opposition in the State Duma in recent years, has also reportedly received permission for an action in the zone.)
The strict regulations during the Olympics prohibit solo pickets that are not pre-approved, which are normally allowed under Russian law. On Monday, local activist David Khakim was detained within three minutes of unfurling a sign reading “Free environmental prisoner Yevgeny Vitishko” in front of Sochi city hall and later sentenced to thirty hours of community service.
The first LGBT action of the Sochi Olympics was also stopped as soon as it started on Monday: former Italian politician Vladimir Luxuria, who was the first openly transgender member of the European Parliament, said she was detained when she tried to enter a hockey game dressed in rainbow-colored clothing and shouting, “It’s okay to be gay.” Law enforcement agents took away her Olympic spectator pass and released her in the countryside, she said.
But the unofficial protest ban is not absolute: three Americans from the Bible-thumping “Street Preacher” movement protested outside the Sochi train station on the opening day of the Olympics with signs reading “Homo sex is sin” and “God bless Putin for his stand against the sin of homosexuality, which the Lord considers an abomination.” Police eventually detained them but then allowed them to continue if they promised to put the Putin banner away, one of the men told The Wall Street Journal.
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