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PEN Letter to President Obama in Advance of the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg

August 28, 2013

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 20500
Fax: (202) 456-2461

Dear President Obama,

We are writing to you on behalf of the 3,350 members of PEN American Center, the largest branch of the world’s leading literary organization, to urge you to use the upcoming G20 Summit meeting in St. Petersburg to express concern over the Russian government’s increasing restrictions on free expression.

As you are no doubt aware, June 2013 saw the introduction of two paralyzing laws into the Russian Criminal Code. Article 148 was amended to make “public acts expressing manifest disrespect for society and carried out with the goal of insulting the feelings of religious believers” a criminal offense, with punishments of up to three years in prison. It is widely suspected that this amendment is a direct response to the actions of the punk rock band Pussy Riot, three of whose members were convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” on August 17, 2012, and sentenced to two years in prison, after performing a “punk prayer” at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral in February 2012. Mariya Alyokhina was moved from a penal colony Perm to serve the rest of her sentence in Nizhny Novgorod earlier this year. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova is serving hers in Mordovia. Yekaterina Samutsevich’s sentence was suspended and she was released from custody in October 2012.

Even more troubling is the legislation President Putin signed into law banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors” on June 30. The consequences of this law have been immediate and alarming for many of Russia’s citizens: since the Duma began debating this bill in January, physical attacks and verbal aggression against the LGBT community has been on the rise. But the law also threatens essential freedoms society-wide, especially the fundamental right to freedom of expression. The European Court of Human Rights has stated that such measures to “protect” children from information about homosexuality do not meet the test of necessity in a democratic society and constitute discrimination. Fines imposed on individuals and organizations that discuss homosexuality rise exponentially once mass media and telecommunications, including the Internet, are involved, a plain attempt to discourage public discourse and punish those who attempt to share their opinions. A clear violation of Russia’s freedom of expression obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the law undermines the rights of all Russia’s citizens and threatens the rights and the work of any American journalist, scholar, or tourist who is working in or visiting the country.

As we are sure you agree, these two laws, which build upon a reintroduction of Russia’s criminal libel law in July 2012, are deeply troubling, especially as we near the Sochi Winter Olympic Games and the world converges in Russia. We urge you to raise these important issues with President Putin during the G20 Summit September 5 and 6, and once again urge him to facilitate the release of Marikya Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova from prison.

Thank you for your continued attention to these crucial issues.

Sincerely,
             
Peter Godwin
President

Larry Siems
Freedom to Write and International Programs


CC: The Honorable John F. Kerry
Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street, NW
Washington, DC 20520
Fax: (202) 647-3344

 

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