Jailed Pussy Riot member complains of "death threats"

MOSCOW Wed Jan 23, 2013 2:55pm EST

Maria Alyokhina, a member of the female punk band ''Pussy Riot'', attends a court hearing in Berezniki in Perm region, near the Ural mountains, January 16, 2013. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Maria Alyokhina, a member of the female punk band ''Pussy Riot'', attends a court hearing in Berezniki in Perm region, near the Ural mountains, January 16, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - One of two jailed Pussy Riot members said she received death threats and complained of abuse at a prison colony where she is serving a two-year sentence for a punk protest against President Vladimir Putin in Moscow's main cathedral.

But Maria Alyokhina and fellow group member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova said they did not regret the protest, despite describing harsh prison conditions in interviews published on Wednesday by the opposition-leaning Novaya Gazeta newspaper.

Alyokhina, 24, who lost an appeal this month to have her sentence deferred to care for her five-year-old son, said she was transferred to solitary confinement in November after being threatened by inmates she suspects of acting on the orders of prison officials.

"(They said) if you stay in this unit - that's the end of you... Human rights are grossly violated here," said Alyokhina, who is being held at a penal colony in the Urals Mountains region of Perm.

"What is the most difficult thing? Coming to understand how this system works, how it creates a slave mentality," she said.

"Ignorance, cowardice, betrayal, denunciation is the norm."

Tolokonnikova, 23, who also has a young child and is jailed in the central Russian region of Mordovia, renown for its legacy of Soviet-era prison camps, said she has not been victim of the same pressure as Alyokhina but described pitiless conditions of forced labor.

Like many female inmates in Russia, she works to fulfil quotas for sewing padded winter jackets, earning a salary of 350 roubles ($11.59) per month, she said.

Both women, who were inspired by leftist philosophy to form the radical punk performance art group, complained of not having enough time for and access to books in jail.

Three Pussy Riot members - who until their arrest hid their identities and that of other band mates behind trademark colored balaclavas at impromptu street performances - were convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.

One of the three was released on appeal with a suspended sentence but Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova are less than halfway through their prison terms, which are counted from their arrests in March 2012.

'HEARTFELT CRY'

Pussy Riot's raucous "punk prayer", the women flashing legs clad in brightly-colored tights and brandishing an electric guitar on the altar, was criticized by Putin and cast by the Russian Orthodox Church as part of a concerted attack on the country's main faith.

The two jailed women complained that their message, part of a wave of opposition protests against Putin's decision to return for a third Kremlin term since 2000, has been twisted by Russian media.

"Russian state propaganda presented us as blasphemers, as hooligans and so on, but in reality it was an ironic and funny action, though still a desperate one," said Tolokonnikova.

"It was, so to speak, a political heartfelt cry which was still made in an ironic and funny manner."

Alyokhina raged against what she said was the low level of public debate in Russia, where the Kremlin has a near monopoly over federal television - the main source of news for Russians.

"There were many who were incredulous, who didn't understand why we are not happy with Putin," she told Novaya Gazeta.

"One girl expressed a very interesting point of view that Putin looks great on TV, so why are we not happy with him? ... That's the level of a dialogue, and it is really sad."

($1 = 30.2072 Russian roubles)

(Reporting By Alissa de Carbonnel)

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