Pussy Riot leader lost in Russia’s prison system, husband says

MOSCOW — The leader of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot, whose protest performance at a Moscow cathedral led to prison terms for three of its members, appears to be lost in the nation’s vast penal system, her husband said Sunday.

Pyotr Verzilov said he had not received any news from or about his wife, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, for more than three weeks after authorities said she was being transferred to another penal colony from the corrective labor camp in Mordovia, east of Moscow.

Tolokonnikova, 24, wrote an open letter Sept. 23 charging violations of human rights in the Mordovia camp and declared a hunger strike in protest. The musician accused the camp administration of pressing convicts to work long hours and threatening her life.

Tolokonnikova was first transferred to a prison hospital, where she ended her strike after nine days. Then in mid-October she was reportedly transferred to another colony.

Tolokonnikova’s lawyer, Irina Khrunova, said Sunday that prison system sources told her last week her client had been transferred to Colony IK-50 near the town of Nizhny Ingash, about 200 miles east of Krasnoyarsk in central Siberia.

“They can’t officially tell us where she is now and where she is heading for security reasons,” Khrunova said in an interview. “As long as she is in transit, her whereabouts is a white spot on the map, and there is nothing we can do about that.”

As soon as Khrunova passed the information about Tolokonnikova’s alleged destination, Verzilov traveled to Nizhny Ingash to talk to the colony’s administration chief. Verzilov said the administrator told Verzilov on Saturday that he knew from media reports that Tolokonnikova was coming to his colony and that she was not there yet.

“I am terribly worried about Nadezhda as we don’t know where she is or how she is,” Verzilov said in a phone interview from Krasnoyarsk on Sunday. “My understanding is that such a long transit with all additional deprivations it bodes for Nadezhda is the way the system is taking its revenge on her for her rebellion against its lawlessness. They are deliberately torturing her right now by such a long transit.”

Tolokonnikova and bandmates Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich were arrested in March 2012 and sentenced by a Moscow court to two years in prison each on a charge of hooliganism committed out of religious hatred.

The trial drew worldwide attention because the three women had challenged Russian President Vladimir Putin when in February 2012, at the height of Putin’s successful election campaign, they entered Christ the Savior’s Cathedral in downtown Moscow dressed in long gowns and hoods and performed what they called a punk prayer begging Mother Mary to drive Putin away.

Samutsevich, 31, was later given a suspended sentence after authorities said she had not been directly involved in the actions. Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were sent to prison camps.

Verzilov said Sunday that he had no option but to stay in Krasnoyarsk and wait for his wife’s arrival in the colony.

Human rights activists, meanwhile, demanded that the authorities report on Tolokonnikova’s whereabouts and well-being.

“The system demonstrates that at any given moment it can behave like (Josef) Stalin’s gulag,” Lev Ponomaryov, head of the Moscow-based For Human Rights movement, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “The system has not undergone any serious changes since those dark times as it continues to demonstrate that for them public opinion and human rights don’t mean a thing.”

Ponomaryov said he was planning to discuss the situation Monday with Vladimir Lukin, Russia’s presidential human rights envoy.

Alyokhina, 25, who is serving her term in the Nizhny Novgorod region, complained that she was beaten by guards in July when she first refused to be transferred to a new colony from the Perm region.

Both young women are expected to go free in March.

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