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Löning: “These women must be acquitted”

17.08.2012 - Interview

Markus Löning, Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy on the trial of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot. Broadcast on Deutschlandfunk on 17 August 2012

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Hidden under colourful balaclavas and wearing equally bright tights, the young women from the Russian punk band Pussy Riot sang and danced their anti Putin punk prayer: “The Virgin Mary, Mother of God, get rid of Putin” in a cathedral in Moscow last February. They were stopped by security forces after only 30 seconds. The three women, who are on trial for, among other things, hooliganism, are expected to hear their fate today. They could be handed down long prison sentences. On the line now I have Markus Löning, the Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Aid. Good morning, Mr Löning!

Good morning, Mr Dobovisek!

The public prosecutor’s office is calling for a three year prison sentence rather than the maximum of seven years, while Putin himself is now appealing for leniency. Is public pressure having an impact?

You do get the feeling that President Putin has realized that the trial has damaged his country enormously, that it has tarnished its image. After all, people around the world are campaigning on behalf of the three young women and saying that what’s happened is completely disproportionate. Even the orthodox church has toned down its demands somewhat. We welcome that. That shows that the protest really is having an impact now. However, I very much hope that this will now be reflected in the verdict. I very much hope that the three young women will be acquitted.

And what do you fear?

I don’t want to paint too gloomy a picture. I’d just like to say that I hope the court will make the right decision. Indeed I call upon it to do so. These three young women must be acquitted. What has happened is completely disproportionate. They’ve been remanded in custody for the last six months for something which could at most be perhaps described as a misdemeanour. This situation is unacceptable, the three women must be released.

Russia’s once richest man Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who himself is in prison for being a member of the opposition, told the Süddeutsche Zeitung that the aim of the trial is to teach the regime’s critics a lesson. From what you’ve seen, Mr Löning, does the trial comply with the rule of law as we know it?

Above all, it violates the principle of proportionality. The mere fact that the women have been held in custody even though two of them have small children is in contravention of this principle. For it’s unlikely that they would have left Moscow. Indeed, it’s more than likely that they would have stayed there to appear at the trial. Not only their remand in custody but also the length of the possible sentence are out of all proportion. Perhaps a fine of a few hundred euros, for example, would be appropriate, or an acquittal on the grounds of artistic freedom. However, a prison sentence of several months or possibly several years is unacceptable. It’s completely out of proportion and demonstrates a lack of understanding of concepts such as artistic freedom or freedom of opinion. And what I find rather disappointing in this connection is that while there has been much support from the West with a large number of artists around the world campaigning on behalf of the three women, the support within Russia is a bit half hearted, especially in intellectual or artistic circles.

Are artists in Russia simply afraid?

There are many indications that the intimidation tactics in Russia are working. Some individuals have commented on the trial, especially in Moscow. They’ve said that the three women must be acquitted. However, we’ve seen protest actions in Red Square with flyers being distributed or people with balaclavas carrying out some kind of action who have then been taken away immediately by the security forces. I believe that people have reason to be afraid of a harsh crackdown by the state.

How long will Putin manage to keep up these measures against the opposition? For as we saw for ourselves in spring, in some cases hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets.

Yes, we shouldn’t forget that he has, of course, had some support from the general public. However, opinion polls show that a considerable portion of the Russian population believe the band’s protest was blasphemous. A substantial share of the population believes that security and stability are of overriding importance. We shouldn’t be misled by these images. They give us hope that something is finally happening and that Putin is coming under more pressure. On the other hand, however, he hasn’t been in office long but has already tightened the law on NGOs and restricted the right to demonstrate. So, unfortunately, there’s currently a trend in the wrong direction.

You mentioned the NGO law, the law which obliges NGOs with foreign financing to register as foreign agents. How can, for instance, the German Government still be active in any unofficial capacity, for example by fostering democracy through human rights organizations?

Well, that’s very, very difficult. Some organizations, some of which are very renowned and have been working with us on joint projects for many years, are saying: we can’t or won’t accept any foreign money anymore. This is a serious setback for the human rights scene. It’s an attempt to discredit people who have been campaigning for human rights, democracy and freedom in Russia by labelling them as “foreign agents”. Mr Putin’s failure to engage in an open discussion with his political critics ultimately highlights his weakness and lack of self confidence. He’s using legislation and other means to push back and subdue the opposition.

What can and must Germany, in particular the German Government, do here?

Well, we urge our Russian partners again and again to comply with Council of Europe standards. Russia is a member of the Council of Europe, it has signed the European Convention on Human Rights and is thus obligated to meet these standards. And it’s up to the other members of the Council of Europe to go on reminding the Russians that they have to comply with the standards to which they voluntarily committed themselves. Admittedly, that’s often frustrating. However, we must not ease up on our efforts – we have to keep on urging Russia to meet its commitments, both publicly and within the scope of direct bilateral talks.

What action could follow these forceful words?

I believe that everything very much depends on how vociferously Russian society demands that civil liberties be respected. The demonstrations we’ve seen are, indeed, a hopeful sign. It’s important that this continues and that we take appropriate supportive measures.

Yes, but how do we do that, Mr Löning?

I believe that political, that frank and clear criticism has an impact. We’re witnessing that now with the Pussy Riot trial. We in the West often underestimate the effect of clear public statements on situations like this. They help people on the ground. They give people more than just moral support. They also provide political backing and put a government like Russia’s under strong pressure.

Eleven years ago, Putin and the then Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schröder launched the Petersburg Dialogue, a dialogue between leading politicians in which civil rights activists and intellectuals don’t participate. Andreas Schockenhoff, deputy floor leader of the CDU and the German Government’s Commissioner for Russia, has openly criticized these meetings and has said that they may be discontinued. What form could, or should, such a dialogue take in future?

First of all, it has to be said that it’s important to conduct such a dialogue. I believe that what we have to do – and I think that this is what Andreas Schockenhoff is criticizing – is press the Russian side more to ensure that the participants in the civil society dialogue aren’t exclusively people selected by the Kremlin but are members of genuine NGOs. You have to remember that opinions in Germany on the Petersburg Dialogue are also very divided. There are people who say that it must be continued at any price and others, such as Andreas Schockenhoff, who criticize it. I believe we have to find a happy medium. We have to exert pressure and make it clear that we want a genuine civil society dialogue with people who have not been hand picked by Mr Putin. We want to engage with people who belong to the opposition, who have different views and who stand for the real civil society in Russia. That’s the point we have to make.

You’ve mentioned both sides, Mr Löning, but what’s your opinion? Is the Petersburg Dialogue still the right instrument?

I believe it’s good to talk to one another and I believe the Petersburg Dialogue can enhance the standing of civil society. For our part, however, we have to exert more pressure to ensure that the right people really are allowed to sit round the table.

Yes, but I repeat, what means do you have apart from appeals?

Well of course, we have political, public and diplomatic pressure and we have to use it.

And what about economic pressure, Mr Löning?

We’re an especially important trading partner for Russia. Russia can’t afford to ignore what Germany – what the German Government – says. Rather, it has to address our concerns. Naturally, the fact that we’re one of Russia’s major trading partners makes Moscow more inclined to listen to us. They know that they depend on doing business with Germany.

The verdict against the three members of the punk band Pussy Riot is expected in Moscow today. That was our interview with Markus Löning, the Federal Government Human Rights Commissioner. Thank you, Mr Löning!

Thank you to you too.

The questions were put by Mario Dobovisek. Reproduced with the kind permission of Deutschlandfunk.

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