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Pussy Riot verdict: Sounds silly, but Putin doesn't joke around

A native of the storied coastal city of Charleston, South Carolina, Julie Sprankles has been a lover of words her entire life. As a Southerner, she certainly has what her mama calls “the gift of gab.” When she’s not writing, Julie can be...

All joking aside

While the headline "Pussy Riot charged with hooliganism" seems ripped right out of Mad Magazine, the jailing of three smart young women — and the alleged persecution of countless other "dissidents" — is no laughing matter.

Pussy Riot supporters at a protest in Canada

It's been nearly four months since Vladimir Putin returned to power in Russia, and his short tenure thus far has been marred by controversy. The most recent brouhaha, the arrest of members of the punk rock band Pussy Riot, has put the civil rights of Russian women on the forefront of the world's political landscape.

In 2008, Putin stepped down from the presidency due to a constitutional law forbidding two consecutive terms in office. He handpicked a successor, Dmitry Medvedev, who filled in — Putin retained political influence with a four-year term as prime minister. The same constitution that kept Putin out of office for back-to-back terms lacked any rules about coming back later, and Putin found the loophole through which he would reestablish himself as Russia's most powerful politico.

With Putin's September 2011 announcement that he would once again run for president, many whispered of civil unrest — afraid of the return of a man whose reign was dogged by rumors of corruption. Among the outspoken opponents were a group of liberal feminists who opted to form the band Pussy Riot to protest Putin's return. The band was formed, the founding members told Vice.com, based on the principles of "gender and LGBT rights, problems of masculine conformity, absence of a daring political message on the musical and art scenes, and the domination of males in all areas of public discourse."

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Since banding together, Pussy Riot has rocked Russian conservatives with a string of highly provocative guerilla performances... and their illegal antics haven't gone unnoticed. All eight original bandmates have found themselves cuffed and carted away for protests over the past year. It was their Feb. 21 anti-Putin performance at Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral, however, that landed the band in serious hot water with Russian authorities. Three Pussy Riot members — Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alekhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30 — were held in jail for five months before learning their fate with today's verdict.

So, what were the women charged with? Hooliganism, to be exact — which presiding Judge Marina Syrova defined as "a grave violation of public order." Syrova accused the women of being disrespectful and justified the harsh two-year sentence by saying that "considering the nature and degree of the danger posed by what was done, the defendants' correction is possible only through an actual punishment." To emphasize this purported degree of danger, she cited the women's "devilish dances" as evidence of their hatred for religion and their feminist views as violations of church doctrine.

Although Judge Syrova, who relied heavily on testimony from men in the church, handed down the ruling, many people proffer that Putin is actually to blame. Ilya Yashin, a Putin critic who served jail time this summer over a protest, attests, "The last three months have seen an increased role for the security services and the persecution of Kremlin critics. Everything Putin does is aimed at tightening his grip on power."

In addition to the loophole allowing Putin to resume his role as head of the Kremlin, Russia's constitution includes amendments altering the presidential term from four to six years. If Yashin is right about Putin's power trip, Pussy Riot could eventually be released from jail only to be persecuted further, despite Putin's public statement suggesting the band should receive leniency. Although today's headlines of hooliganism — and an opposition activist's off-color remark about being old enough to be the girls' dad, in which case he would just give them a good spanking — sound like the punchline of a bad joke, Pussy Riot's verdict packs a tragic wallop.

Pussy Riot: It's just funny to hear newscasters say it >>

Image courtesy of Dominic Chan/WENN.com
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