CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) – A European human rights court ruled Tuesday that the Russian government mistreated members of the protest punk-rock band Pussy Riot when it imprisoned them after a highly publicized and unauthorized performance inside a Moscow cathedral in 2012.
The ruling comes only two days after four members of Pussy Riot, dressed as police officers, ran onto the field of the World Cup finals match in Moscow to protest the Russian government. Russian President Vladimir Putin was in the stands watching.
In a Facebook post after interrupting the World Cup game, the group charged that Russia is guilty of imprisoning people for their political views, stifling political competition and illegally arresting people at political rallies.
On Tuesday, a panel of judges of the European Court of Human Rights – based in Strasbourg, France – ruled 6-1 that Russian authorities had violated the band members’ human rights in the 2012 case.
The ruling was over a high-profile protest performance by Pussy Riot on Feb. 21, 2012 at the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow.
Clad in brightly colored clothes and balaclavas, the group tried to perform a protest song on the church’s altar with invited journalists and media in attendance. Their protest was quickly stopped by cathedral guards.
“The performance was meant to express disapproval of the political situation in Russia at the time and of Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, who had strongly criticized the large-scale street protests across the country against the recently held parliamentary elections and the approaching presidential election,” according to a summary of the court’s decision.
The group’s performance was a protest against Putin too. Putin, after serving as Russia’s president and prime minister, was at the time running to become president for a third term.
The court noted that there was no church service taking place when the band entered the cathedral and that the band did not cause injury to anyone or damage church property.
Nonetheless, three members of the band received “exceptionally severe [sentences] in relation to their conduct,” the court said.
Two Pussy Riot members – Mariya Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova – served about one year and nine months in prison and a third member, Yekaterina Samutsevich, served about seven months, the ruling said.
In addition, the human rights court condemned Russian authorities for holding the women for five months in jail as they awaited trial.
The court also blasted Russian authorities for transporting the band members to and from court in overcrowded and poorly ventilated prison vans with temperatures reaching over 104 degrees Fahrenheit at times.
The court said the band members were subjected to harsh treatment during the trial due to heavy security, including the installation of a guard dog near them, and limited communication with their lawyers.
The European Court of Human Rights, which enforces the European Convention on Human Rights, faulted Russian court authorities for banning access to the group’s video recordings of the Moscow cathedral performance on the internet without adequately reviewing the content of the videos in a process of judicial review.
“Therefore, finding the applicants’ video-recordings ‘extremist’ and banning access to them on the internet, had not met a ‘pressing social need’ and had not been ‘necessary in a democratic society’,” the court ruled.
The court ordered Russia to pay €16,000, or more than $18,000, to both Alekhina and Tolokonnikova and €5,000, nearly $6,000, to Samutsevich and court expenses.
Lawyers for the Pussy Riot members could not be immediately reached for comment.
The Kremlin did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Russia has three months to contest the ruling and seek a hearing before the court’s Grand Chamber, which serves as an appellate body for the court, according to Tracey Turner-Tretz with the court’s press service.
Once a court’s ruling is final, it is transferred to the Council of Europe and the council’s committee of ministers is responsible for enforcing the human rights court’s judgments.
For the group’s latest protest at the World Cup, the four members arrested on the field were sentenced to 15 days in jail, according to news reports and the group’s Twitter feed. The sentences included three-year bans from sporting events, according to news reports and the group’s Twitter feed.