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Pussy Riot: On freedom of expression, Putin has a partner in Israel

By Jonathan J. Klinger

A few months ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin came to Israeli for a brief visit. The president, who receives embarrassing support from Israeli Minister of Foreign Affair Avigdor Liberman, and almost magical admiration from Knesset member Anastasia Michaeli, also received a warm hug from Israeli government leaders, first and foremost Benyamin Netanyahu. This welcome leaves no room for doubt that there is a strong link between the two states. But it was another embarrassing affair that Putin faced recently that demonstrates he is the one admiring Israel, and not vice versa.

Israel is known for instances when its legal system falls victim to political constraints from the left and the right, and not just in the higher courts. Sometimes, indictments are colored with politics, accompanied by circumstances that don’t enable acquittal. The story of Jonathan Pollack, who was convicted for riding his bicycle slowly in a demonstration against Operation Cast Lead, and was sentenced to three months in prison, and of Rachamim Nissimi, who blocked a road during anti-disengagement protests and received the same penalty, show that there’s a problem with the system. The problem is that demonstrations are meant to be disruptive, and to offend, hurt and show the government their criticism; those are the rules of the game. Protester are allowed to be rude, disgusting and violate public order. The police, on the other hand, cannot be brutal and must respect political expression.

And the same is the case with Pussy Riot, a Russian feminist band that decided sometime in February to organize and demonstrate spontaneously in a protest against Putin. Last Friday, three members were sentenced to two years in prison after being charged with hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. That was not in relation to the content of their act, but to the deed itself: the members of Pussy Riot assembled in a public place, offended the public, and tried to protest against the current situation. If they had protested where they are allowed to do so, in their homes, then no one would have heard of Pussy Riot.

It is unlikely that this could be perceived as a just trial, even though the Russian public supports it. When political hooligans are indicted, the content of the speech is not mentioned or discussed in court. As long as the suspect is labeled a hooligan, nobody cares if he or she protested against a toothpaste advertisement or against a mayor. What matters is the violation of public order. Under such circumstances, the defense can’t call for a focus on content instead of form, because the content is indisputable. The architecture of the trial thus prevents justice.

And thus the close similarities between Israel and Putin’s dictatorship: here, also, hard work is done to limit protest. Sure, it’s not political at all: the simple policy requiring a license for every activity of public expression is perceived by the court as a way to preserve public order (AA 6095-07-12 Hatzav v. Tel-Aviv, Hebrew). That approach is not limited to words: the Tel Aviv municipality recently issued an administrative order stating that “demonstrations, rallies, ceremonies, solidarity events, charity events, holiday events, and all other activities that express an idea, opinion, value, belief, or worldview,” not carried out in cooperation with the municipality, has to obtain its consent (see the text of the order in Hebrew here). Meaning that if I was to sit with a friend on Rothschild Boulevard to discuss my opinion on the country’s financial status or the city’s garbage collection, I have to approach the municipality’s CEO, fill out the proper forms and obtain a permit.

These procedures are not only unlawful, but surely make Putin jump with joy. The resemblance, the inspiration: maybe he gets royalties from Israel.

And in the meantime? Israel does not have a local Pussy Riot. And maybe that’s for the better; their music is not so soothing. But until we do have one, we must all admire King Bibi.

Jonathan J. Klinger is an Israeli cyberlaw attorney and a legal advisor for +972 Magazine. This post was originally published in Hebrew

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    COMMENTS

    1. kila

      what a stupid comparation. Those “girls” are not a punk band.. they dont produce punks music..appart from yelling, they just called their political activism in a church”a punk prayer”. As a Ortodox believer I’m deeply offended by their act in a church. Nadya was even involved in public orgy in a museum in 2008, while she was 9month pregnant.. Russians dislike them very much, and it has nothing to do with Putin, they tried very hard to get arrested to attract attention, cause they get payed a lot of money for doing that

      Reply to Comment
      • Prometheus

        “As a Ortodox believer I’m deeply offended by their act in a church.”
        .
        That’s the problem with orthodox believers. Obviously you are not offended by numerous violations of each and every Christian law by your church leaders, but girls performing prayer must not be tolerated.
        .
        It has everything to do with Putin, don’t even try to lie.
        .
        1 – Girls were praying for the removal of Putin
        2 – By Russia law MAXIMAL penalty for their offence is about $30 fine.

        Reply to Comment
        • RichardL

          Prometheus: Are you being willfully obtuse? It may involve Putin insofar as they put his name in the punk prayer, but the location is the important point here. Choosing a holy site and then profaning it is not a civil right. It is an unnecessary provocation and unnecessarily offensive. That is why healthy democracies have laws against such acts. Three years may be an excessive sentence and it may yet be reduced on appeal. But if you poke a stick in a hornet’s nest you must expect an unpleasant reaction. If you don’t accept this logic then go ahead and try making a well publicized punk prayer at the Western Wall. I wager you will suffer more than a $30 fine for such an incitement.

          Reply to Comment
          • the other joe

            The bizarre thing is that a) Christianity holds that a profane act in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem by Jesus the Christ was prophetic and b) there is a history of such disturbances thoughout the history of Christendom.

            Western democracies do not give people prison sentences for years for disturbing worship services. The last time someone got arrested for disturbing the peace at a major British Cathedral during the Easter Sunday sermon, he got escorted from the building and a small fine.

            Reply to Comment
          • Prometheus

            Richard,
            “If you don’t accept this logic then go ahead and try making a well publicized punk prayer at the Western Wall.”
            As stupid as a comment could be.
            .
            The sacredness of that church in Moscow is comparable to that of say the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem – which means ZERO sacredness.
            .
            The Western Wall in that sense could only be compared to the church of holy sepulchral or kaaba.

            Reply to Comment
      • Blake

        Could not agree more. Imagine if they demonstrated in a synagogue to protest against the suppression of the Palestinians.

        Reply to Comment

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