The jail sentences handed to the three members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot are a totally disproportionate punishment for their ‘crime’ – expressing dissent by staging a protest against Vladimir Putin in Russia’s main church.
Their plight has exposed to the world the total lack of impartiality in Russia’s legal system and opened our country to international ridicule.
President Putin maintains that he had no say in the state-run court’s decision, but he should take a stand against the country’s corrupt, inefficient and extremely powerful bureaucracy by showing the young women leniency.
If he does nothing, he is throwing away an opportunity to show that Russia is capable of providing appropriate justice – and, at the same time, that he is a strong, reforming leader.
Russia still has a very long way to go before it can claim to have fair and transparent European-style democracy. The treatment of Pussy Riot is just one of many examples of politically-motivated abuses of the criminal justice system which take place on a frequent basis.
I went to court for one of their hearings in July to offer to stand bail for the group, but unsurprisingly, the judge refused. I have been in Russian courtrooms many times for cases against those seen as dissenters, and in none of those cases have the dissenters ever won.
In reality, there is no independent judiciary in Russia: judges are appointed either directly by the president or on his recommendation by the upper chamber of parliament.
This means that those who, like me, are viewed as opposing the government, often find themselves enmeshed in ludicrous accusations.
I have been the subject of several criminal investigations after allegations made against me, including one of money laundering and one of harassment.
I have no doubt these were a direct result of my part ownership of the leading opposition newspaper in Russia, Novaya Gazeta, which has published many stories about abuses of power within Putin’s government.
Last October, like Pussy Riot, I was accused of ‘hooliganism’ when prosecutors decided to open a criminal case after a row on a TV chat show with Sergei Polonsky, a fellow businessman, in which he was hit in the face.
Despite an investigation which has lasted ten months, I have not yet been officially charged. As a tactic to discredit me, it is typical of the regime.
Sweeping reforms must be made to the justice system – and pardoning Pussy Riot would send a strong signal to the world that Putin is willing to make them.
Alexander Lebedev co-owns Moscow pro-democracy newspaper Novaya Gazeta with Mikhail Gorbachev