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One night last February, five members of a feminist punk band called Pussy Riot entered Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow to film a brief (40 seconds), mimed performance behind the iconostasis, where women are not allowed, and left when church orderlies asked them to. Outside, police took the names of three of the women and then let them go.

Two weeks later, after Russian president Vladimir Putin was re-elected amidst unprecedented public protests against him, and after the band’s “Virgin Mary, redeem us of Putin” video was posted on YouTube, the three were arrested and charged with inciting religious hatred, which could result in two to seven years in prison.

International concern over the disproportional severity of the charges against the group members may be in part what has prompted Putin to publically call for leniency. Prosecutors are now asking for two to three-year sentences instead of the maximum.

Amnesty International, however, is calling for the immediate release of the band members, who they believe were merely exercising their rights to freedom of expression, freedom to protest and freedom of assembly. Outside of Russia the case is widely criticized as being a show trial rooted in the Kremlin’s desire to make an example of the women. Nevertheless, the court is ignoring any political aspects and focusing instead on heresy.

In support of Amnesty’s efforts, big names in the music industry are writing letters and speaking out against the charges. Sting agrees with Amnesty’s statement that these band members are prisoners of conscience: “Dissent is a legitimate and essential right in any democracy and modern politicians must accept this fact with tolerance.”

Singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright also agrees and thinks this battle is one most people are too afraid to fight. “I’ve always taken my freedom of speech for granted,” said Wainwright, after signing a letter for the campaign.

“I’m against censorship,” says Madonna. “My whole career I’ve always promoted freedom of expression, freedom of speech, so obviously I think what’s happening to [Pussy Riot] is unfair, and I hope that they do not have to serve seven years in jail. That would be a tragedy.”

Although the Pussy Riot women are the highest profile people in the crackdown on dissent, there are several others under arrest for allegedly creating disorder leading up the elections; their trials will be starting soon.

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