Pussy Riot: could it happen here?

The trial of Pussy Riot has also started a debate about freedom of speech and protecting the right to protest in this country.

Did Charlie Gilmour deserve a 16 month sentence for swinging from a flag on the Cenotaph during a student demonstration against tuition fees? Should the guy who jumped into the water during the Boat Race, interrupting a have got 6 months in jail? And what about the man who got 8 months in prison for wearing an offensive T-shirt shortly after the killings of two policewomen in Manchester, saying ‘one less pig, perfect justice’? Not to mention the spate of recent cases where people – usually rather foolish young men – have been convicted for saying nasty things on social media.

People say, if Pussy Riot had performed their ‘punk prayer’ in Westminster Abbey, they’d have been locked up in jail here too. I usually point as the closest comparison to Peter Tatchell storming the pulpit when the Archbishop of Canterbury was giving a sermon, to protest about gay rights. He was prosecuted under the obscure Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860 (which was formerly part of the splendidly named Brawling Act 1551), which prohibits any form of disruption or protest in a church. So, some similarities with the Pussy Riot charges, of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”, under even more ancient and little-used ecclesiastical law. But Tatchell received an £18.60 fine.

We all know what Peter Tatchell was angry about, and the point was he was trying to make. My problem with the cases I’ve mentioned above is that their political point isn’t clear. The guy who disrupted the Boat Race seemed to be staging a protest against posh people, but hasn’t really articulated what it was, so it seems pretty pointless. Charlie Gilmour was ostensibly protesting against tuition fees, but at his trial it was revealed that he was fuelled by whisky, valium and LSD on the day, and probably didn’t have much of a clue what he was up to. He turned up in court with his parents with a respectable new haircut and wearing a smart suit – a far cry from Pussy Riot’s continued defiance in the face of authority and how they spoke out at their trial with such passion and eloquence to defend their views. And the man in the T-shirt turned out to have a son who had died in police custody and mental health issues, which rather suggests that he needs help not a jail sentence.

So yes, there is what some might see as unfairness in our justice system. Disproportionate sentences, a knee-jerk reaction to a tabloid-led agenda. But it doesn’t stand up to close comparison with the Pussy Riot case: charges inspired by the Kremlin in collusion with the Orthodox Church, a one-sided trial, a judge that answered to Putin, kept on remand without seeing their children, and then sent to penal colonies where conditions are notoriously dreadful. And many of their supporters arrested and in some cases jailed too.

There is much to protest about in the UK right now, much to be angry about (although this summer we all seemed to wallow in a Jubilee and Olymoics inspired torpor.) We need to be ever vigilant about protecting hard-won rights of freedom to assembly, freedom of speech, and freedom of expression. But as some of the cases we’ll be posting on these pages soon show, from other countries, in the UK we should still count ourselves lucky.

3 thoughts on “Pussy Riot: could it happen here?

  1. Candy

    Good article, never think for one moment though that we actually live in a democracy because we don’t. This is not America where they have a constitution, this is a country run by dangerous posh people who do NOT want people to have a say in ANYTHING.

    So to answer your question ‘Could it happen here’ it appears it already does and the only weapon if you want to call it that, is to get an education and do what Neo did in the Matrix when he exploded the system from within.

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  3. Rick Redick

    Interestingly, there’s a sign inside Westmister Abbey right now, posted at the request of the Dean, specifically asking people to pray to God for the release of Pussy Riot; holding them up as “Prisoners of Conscience”.

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