Pussy Riot Hunger Strike: U.S. and Russian Prisoners Share Language Of Starvation

The recent hunger strike declaration by the imprisoned Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova that landed her in solitary confinement on Tuesday afternoon highlights the mistreatment of prisoners both in the Russian prison system and at Guantanamo Bay, where prisoners have participated in a hunger strike for over six months. Both hunger strikes were born out of prisoners' frustrations with the lack of respect for their speech and practice of religion. Tolokonnikova's hunger strike highlights the inhumane nature of Russian penal colonies and Russia's speech intolerance, but also is a reminder that the U.S. has shown the same type of intolerance towards Guantanamo Bay prisoners.

Tolokonnikova, a member of the Russian punk group Pussy Riot, is serving a two year sentence in a Mordovian prison colony for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred." She and two other group members were arrested in 2012 when they gave an unauthorized performance in Moscow's main Orthodox cathedral in which they performed a "punk prayer" that asked the Virgin Mary to "kick out" President Vladimir Putin. 

Although Tolokonnikova has been imprisoned for her speech as part of Pussy Riot, she is not suppressing her speech in prison. Her letter states that she "will not remain silent," and that she demands the penal colony administration respect human rights. Tolokonnikova has likened the horrible prison conditions to those of the Soviet Gulag system. She describes the 17-hour days spent sewing police uniforms, the beatings some prisoners received, and the less-than-sanitary conditions. 

Tolokonnikova understands that a hunger strike is extreme, but she believes that this will be the most effective form of speech to improve prison conditions. Tolokonnikova was imprisoned for speaking in ways not tolerated by the Russian government. Had the Pussy Riot concert been in the U.S., they likely would have neither been imprisoned nor physically mistreated for their anti-government speech. 

The U.S., however, has also been intolerant towards the speech and religion of prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba. Six months ago, a hunger strike began in which two thirds of the 166 prisoners have participated. Prisoners were upset by the seizure of family photos, legal documents, and personal possessions during a routine cell search. One prisoner named Obaidullah stated that guards desecrated Korans and were disrespectful during times of prayer. Like Tolokonnikova, the prisoners believed that a hunger strike was the most effective way they could bring attention to their mistreatment.

Recently, camp commanders at Guantanemo Bay pardoned disciplinary infractions to allow detainees to properly celebrate Ramadan. These pardons demonstrate that prisoners' religious practices are valued to a small extent, but perhaps only during holidays. The prison must be sensitive to detainees' daily religious practices for the hunger strike to end. Similarly, for Tolonnikova's hunger strike to end, Russia must be sensitive to Tolokonnikova's speech and the prisoners' human rights. Vladimir Lukin, Putin's human rights ombudsman, has sent two representatives to the prison to investigate the validity of Tolonnikova's complaints. This action shows that Russia is taking her hunger strike somewhat seriously. However, whether both Russia and the U.S. will remedy the mistreatment of their prisoners remains to be seen.

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