Yekaterina Samutsevich, the Pussy Riot member freed by a Moscow court this week, has promised to continue taking part in the band’s protests against Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying she would be “more careful and more clever” to avoid another arrest.
On Friday, in her first newspaper interview, Samutsevich said her parting words to the two band members who remain in jail were that she would continue their struggle against the president, but she expects state pressure on her to grow despite her newfound freedom
“They didn’t overturn the verdict, they didn’t say I’m not guilty — they gave me a suspended sentence. If I do the slightest thing [wrong], even an administrative violation, they can send me back to jail,” she said.
The three women were sentenced to two years in a prison colony on charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” following their anti-Putin “punk prayer” in a Moscow cathedral. Samutsevich was unexpectedly freed by an appeals court on Wednesday after successfully arguing that she did not fully take part in the performance.
“I didn’t expect it,” Samutsevich said, sitting in a central Moscow cafe wearing the same jeans and white sweater she wore to the appeal hearing. At her feet lay a canvas sack and large plastic bag filled with clothes, letters and books. She had just collected her belongings from the southern Moscow detention center that still holds her bandmates Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova.
Samutsevich described how the three friends had prepared themselves for prison during the appeal hearing.
“In court, we were talking about how we would go to the prison colony, what it would be like,” she said. “When they took us back into the courtroom, we said: ‘That was a very short deliberation, they probably won’t change the verdict.’”
A panel of three judges deliberated for just 40 minutes before announcing Samutsevich’s release.
She struggled to explain the judges’ thinking.
“Maybe the authorities wanted to imitate the independence of the court system,” she said. “But it is just that — an imitation.”
The case against Pussy Riot was one of the most high-profile political trials in Russia since Putin first came to power 12 years ago. The president has condemned their performance and their name, while Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said he was “nauseated” by the group’s action.
Samutsevich said Putin stood behind the decision to prosecute the band.
“Such decisions don’t happen without the president,” she said.
“It was either motivated by personal hate or it was a political step. They’re trying to marginalize us, to say we’re not normal people,” she said. “We were jailed for our political beliefs.”
Pussy Riot formed after Putin announced late last year that he planned to return to the presidency — a move that prompted mounting discontent to spill into the streets with a growing protest movement that vowed to prevent a return to totalitarianism.
The arrest of the three band members in early March was seen as a signal to other protesters. The Duma, Russia’s parliament, has since adopted a series of restrictive laws imposing fines on illegal protests and broadening a law on treason. Samutsevich said she would continue taking part in Pussy Riot’s anonymous performances. She does not worry that she is now recognized, often by people on the street.
“When a person is in a mask and a dress, she can become anonymous again,” she said.
She thought Russia’s security services would step up their surveillance.
“I must live imagining that everything is listened to, everything is read,” she said.
Samutsevich said Alekhina and Tolokonnikova were happy with her release.
As they hugged goodbye inside the courtroom’s glass cage, her fellow band members said: “Finally, one of us is free.”
Samutsevich said: “They said: ‘Keep going with the group’ and I said: ‘Of course.’”
Alekhina, 24, and Tolokonnikova, 22, both mothers to young children, are expected to be sent to distant prison colonies to serve the rest of their sentence until March 2014.
“Masha [Alekhina] especially is suffering for her child,” Samutsevich said. “It’s a big blow for her. For Nadya too. They have hardly seen their kids.”
Samutsevich described her seven months in pre-trial detention as a time of cold isolation in which the system exercised “total control.”
Wake-up came at 6am and lights out at 9pm. In between, there were three meals a day — porridge for breakfast, soup or a potato for lunch and porridge or soup for dinner.
Once a week, she was allowed 30 minutes of privacy for a shower. Otherwise, she was led everywhere by a guard. She shared her cell with three women, all charged with economic crimes. They were subjected to random searches, as guards hunted for banned items such as mobile phones.
“That’s what they said, but they always read my letters.” Samutsevich said she would get around a dozen letters a day from supporters.