Representative Steve King (R., Iowa) told reporters in Moscow that it was “hard to find sympathy for” members of Pussy Riot, the Russian punk group whose members were sentenced to two years in prison for a protest performance held inside a Russian Orthodox church.
King was asked whether he thought the sentence emblematic of the Russian state’s human rights abuses, but instead of addressing that question the congressman focused on what he called the group’s “desecration” of the church.
First of all, the group did not physically defile the church. Second of all, whether the performance metaphysically defiled it is debatable — one could certainly argue the performance was in very poor taste — but also irrelevant. The band was arrested not for property damage, not for offending religious sensibilities, but for “hooliganism”, an amorphous catch-all that the Russian regime (and its antecedent) use to punish political enemies. And for this “crime”, the group were not fined, they were not briefly detained, they were not ordered to do community service — they were sentenced to two years in a Russian prison. One does not have to “sympathize” with Pussy Riot’s methods, or even find them reputable, to recognize that this is an injustice.
I can’t say whether King’s difficulty sympathizing here is based on the fact that the offense took place in a house of worship (would he have supported the sentence if the protest was in front of the Kremlin?) or if it is indicative of his broader casualness about the criminalization of political dissent. Either way, King’s comments were ill-informed and, frankly, un-American.