No Room for Dissent in Putin's Russia

By Robert Amsterdam

The arrest, trial and continued imprisonment in Russia of the female punk rock band Pussy Riot has captured the attention of international media over the past year, but the story seems in recent days to have taken a dramatic turn.

Although it seemed as if not much more could happen to Nadia Tolokonnikova after she and her bandmates were convicted on charges of hooliganism last year, the Russian government's repression has been extended. Almost three weeks ago, Tolokonnikova "disappeared" into the penal system -- in transit, it is believed, to the ИК-50 prison colony in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, deep in gulag archipelago -- with no information provided to her family or legal team until she eventually resurfaced.

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Her unexplained transfer to some of the worst prison conditions imaginable, thousands of miles away from her family, was prompted by a 9-day hunger strike and publication of an open letter in which she blew the whistle on inhumane prison conditions, including 17-hour work days, beatings and attempted suicides by desperate inmates.

It is difficult to say whether or not the continued arbitrary punishment of this young 23-year-old mother comes down from the top, or rather is the whim of a cowardly prison administrator, but what is certain is that Russia is a very dangerous place for whistleblowers -- a system in which the rights of the individual are totally unprotected from the discretionary power of the state.

Whatever hopes may have remained that Putin would release political prisoners before the Sochi Winter Olympic Games are rapidly fading. Even while the world's eyes are on Russia, it is evidently not a season of forgiveness judging by the Kremlin's determination to punish the Greenpeace "Arctic 30" with charges of piracy and now, additionally, hooliganism.

Political trials in Putin's Russia are driven by diverse motives, but united by the same broken system -- which Mikhail Khodorkovsky once described as "the conveyor belt of Russian justice." (Disclosure: I formerly served as counsel to Mr. Khodorkovsky.)

There are economic motives, from the massive theft of Yukos by Rosneft, down to more petty corruption by low level bureaucrats, such as the fraudulent tax rebate that eventually led to the murder of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. There are geostrategic motives, highlighted by the spectacle being made out of the Greenpeace activists, seen as Russia's unsubtle message about their expansionist ambitions in the Arctic. And of course, there are political motives, exemplified by the persecution of people like Khodorkovsky, opposition figure Alexei Navalny and the large group of Bolotnaya Square protesters, one of whom has already been subjected to punitive psychiatry for challenging the regime.

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Robert Amsterdam is the founding partner of Amsterdam & Partners LLP, an international law firm with offices in London and Washington, DC. He blogs at http://robertamsterdam.com and can be followed on twitter @robertamsterdam.

(AP Photo)

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