Warning: This piece contains graphic images.
On Saturday, FEMEN founder and leader Anna Hutsol was brutally beaten by an unidentified man in a cafe in Kiev, Ukraine. Hutsol's laptop, which contained strategic information on the feminist group, was stolen by her assailant, who FEMEN leaders claim is a member of either the Ukrainian or Russian security services.
On their Facebook page, FEMEN leaders accused Russian President Vladimir Putin and his allies of orchestrating the KGB-style attack on Hutsol. They allege that the violence was a response to the group's continuing criticism of Putin, last summer's protest against Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, and Saturday's protest against anniversary celebrations of the baptism of Russia. Regardless of where you stand on FEMEN and other human rights activism in former Soviet countries, these recent crackdowns should have you concerned.
The attack on Hutsol was just one of a series of brutal beatings and arrests of members of the FEMEN movement. On Thursday, FEMEN political strategist Victor Svyatskiy was beaten to a pulp, and allegedly threatened by members of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) and Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) for his support of the group. On their Facebook page, FEMEN leaders accused the SBU and FSB of attempting to murder Svyatskiy, who suffered a fracture of the lower jaw, had his teeth knocked out, and suffered blood loss and head trauma.
Additionally, on Saturday afternoon, three FEMEN activists, Yana Zhdanova, Alexandra Shevchenko, and Oksana Shachko, and New York Times photographer Dmitry Kostukov were attacked and arrested while on their way to the anniversary celebration protest. Kostukov and Shachko were both hospitalized for the severe injuries they sustained in the arrest. A Kiev court found the three FEMEN activists guilty of hooliganism, and Kostukov guilty of resisting police. All were required to pay fines and then released.
These beatings and arrests signal that Putin and his allies are ramping up their Soviet-style intimidation of FEMEN and other human rights groups. Unfortunately for Putin, such tactics are likely to backfire. As we have already seen in the case of FEMEN, the more Putin and his allies attempt to bully the movement into submission through violence and threats, the more allies FEMEN gains as they post videos and photos of SBU and FSB brutality to their website and Facebook account.
Since I began following the movement in 2010, I have watched FEMEN grow from a largely unknown Ukrainian women's rights movement into an international feminist organization with chapters across the globe. They set up an international training center in Paris (which, oddly enough, was destroyed in a recent fire), have seen their Facebook following explode, and have had their movement covered by CNN. Nothing suggests that FEMEN is slowing down or stopping their activism, even in the face of violence and threats of violence.
If Putin and his allies want to stop the movement's growth and influence, and I believe they do, they are going to have to abandon their Soviet scare tactics and enter the 21st-century battleground of social media and the internet. They can threaten, harm, slander, or even kill members of the FEMEN movement, but doing so only will incite more activists to stand up for human rights.