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Jailed Pussy Riot Member Launches Fight for Prisoners' Rights

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova will be the face of a crowd-funded organization

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot.
MAKSIM BLINOV/AFP/Getty Images
October 17, 2013 2:50 PM ET

Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, jailed since March 2012 after being convicted of "premeditated hooliganism," recently publicized the abuses she's faced in prison with a hunger strike. Now the activist/musician will start her own NGO to fight for prison reform in the region where she is being held. According to her husband, Peter Verzilov, plans for the organization are already well-advanced.

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"Basically, it will be an NGO to fight for prisoners’ rights in the [Mordovia] region," Verzilov told Rolling Stone by phone. "Nothing of this sort exists in this region. This will be Nadya’s main legacy from this whole situation."

The plan for the project is detailed in an email, shown exclusively to Rolling Stone, which lays out the organizational structure of a "Mordovian prison control NGO." It gives the number and type of staff required to manage the project, as well as the costs involved, including wages and monthly rent for an office in one of the small towns close to the prison camps. The total annual cost of the project is estimated at $120,000, to be paid for through crowd-funding and private donations.

Tolokonnikova will play an active role in the organization's work, writing texts and serving as its public face, her husband said.

The NGO will be called "Mordovlag" (an abbreviation of "Mordovia Camp" in Russian), and will employ experienced lawyers and activists to inspect the region's prisons, visit prisoners and assist in legal appeals and other procedural issues. Tolokonnikova's NGO will focus solely on the Mordovia region, which is home to one of the largest prison complexes in Europe, with roughly 15,000 prisoners held there.

The decision to start the NGO is the culmination of a recent campaign by Tolokonnikova against the authorities of her colony, and which she accuses of treating prisoners like slaves. Three weeks ago, Tolokonnikova declared a hunger strike in protest of working conditions at the colony, refusing food for nine days before the threat of permanent damage to her health forced her to stop.

The proposed NGO is intended to serve as a local watchdog able to provide more constant monitoring of abuses and a reliable channel for prisoners to get their complaints out.

Nikolai Levshits, an activist from Russia Behind Bars, an organization promoting prison reform, praised Tolokonnikova and Verzilov’s initiative, saying that “maximum transparency” was the best tool for reform.

"The biggest problem is that normal law doesn’t work in the colonies," he says. "Everything depends on the prison governor. They're impossible to control."

Verzilov and other Pussy Riot supporters have also already been leading an unprecedented picket of the prison colony for the past two weeks. They’ve established a protest headquarters in the nearest town, with activists driving the 400 km from Moscow to participate in one-man pickets — larger demonstrations would lead to arrests. Such a protest outside Russia’s prison camps is virtually unheard of.

In the meantime, Tolokonnikova’s move into prison advocacy appears to have already had an effect: Last week, the prison service announced that it would reduce the number of hours worked by inmates and raise their rate of pay. Her hunger strike, and the open letter she released at its outset, have brought public scrutiny onto the camps not seen in decades.

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