Pussy Riot members detained in Sochi for four hours, complain of rough treatment

February 18

The two performance artists known as Pussy Riot, who served nearly two years in prison for singing a protest song on the altar of Moscow’s main cathedral, made a surprise visit here Tuesday and soon found themselves in familiar surroundings: the inside of a police station.

The women, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, accompanied by three other performers, local activists and a photographer, said they were walking on a downtown Sochi street nearly 20 miles from the Olympic Park when police swooped in. All nine were taken in for questioning about a purse stolen at their hotel.

One by one, those detained were released, all without charges. After four hours inside the station, the Pussy Riot women appeared, singing their latest song — “Putin will teach you how to love your motherland.” They were wearing their familiar ski masks, unseen since their imprisonment. A crowd of journalists had dashed over from Olympic Park, waiting in the rain to hear their story.

It was a dramatic one.

The environmentalists and human rights defenders who live here, however, call it a typical tale of the repressive measures imposed since Olympic construction began in Sochi.

“The city is under total police and security control,” Tolokonnikova, 24, said after their release. They had arrived Sunday evening, she said, and had been continually stopped. On Tuesday, she said, they were roughly treated. Although they had planned to make a video of their Putin song in support of suppressed protesters, she said, they were doing nothing provocative when they were stopped.

Sochi has been a closed city since early January as an Olympics security measure. President Vladimir Putin has banned all protests except for a designated spot in a park seven miles from the Olympics, where permits are required. Police have been quick to prevent any sign of demonstrations. An Italian transgender activist, Vladi­mir Luxuria, was hustled out of the Olympic Park on Monday when she tried to go to a hockey game wearing a rainbow-colored headdress.

On Tuesday, the Pussy Riot group was near the Church of St. Michael the Archangel, Sochi’s oldest Orthodox church, when they were loaded into police vans.

“Maybe that’s what made the police nervous,” Olga Noskovets, an environmentalist here, said later. “Maybe they thought they would dash into the church and cause a scandal.”

Noskovets had taken the group around the city by car Monday. Not far from the Olympic Park, they were stopped by border police, she said, who demanded to know whether they had permission to be in the city.

“We were in a residential neighborhood,” she said, “and there were so many police people came out of their houses to watch.”

Eventually, the police let them go, except for Noskovets, who got into trouble because she did not have her passport with her. She was taken to the police station, fingerprinted, had her name put in a database and was fined about $15.

Another environmentalist, David Khakim, was with the Pussy Riot group Tuesday and was also picked up. On Monday, Khakim was sentenced to 30 hours of labor for earlier holding up a sign in support of Evgeny Vitishko, an environmentalist sentenced to three years in a labor colony.

Semyon Simonov, a human rights defender who has been working on behalf of migrant workers employed in Olympic construction, was also detained with the women. He asserted that the case of the stolen purse had been fabricated.

In a statement, police said the investigation was real. “They were interrogated in connection with complaints received from the hotel in which they are staying, concerning an incident of theft,” the statement said.

The detention of Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, 25, raised a torrent of criticism and disbelief on Twitter. “What idiots to detain them in the middle of the Olympics,” tweeted Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader in Moscow. Referring to the U.S. public relations firm that represents the Kremlin, he wrote: “No Ketchum agency can help them here.”

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