New Plans Produced by Former Pussy Riot Band Members

By Ben Kopp
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

MOSCOW, Russia – Newly freed Russian musicians Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova have declared to shift their work from Pussy Riot to human rights.


After release from prison, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova announced that they will create a human rights group in place of their abandoned band. (Photo courtesy of RadioFreeEurope RadioLiberty)

Pussy Riot band members Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova recently served 21 months of a two-year sentence for “hooliganism.” On 23 December 2013, Russia released both members on amnesty.

Except for prison-acquired cigarette habits, no signs suggest that the women’s spirits are broken from their time served. Together, they hope to abolish Moscow’s neo-Gulag prison system.

In a 27 December 2013 media conference, the women declared that they will not continue Pussy Riot’s music project. Instead, Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova will become crusaders for prison reform, through their new human rights group, “Rights Zone.”

“For us, the punk prayer in the Christ the Savior Cathedral is not very important anymore,” said Tolokonnikova. “We are different people now. We lived through a long life in prison. It is a totally different reality from the one you live. And this common experience unites us now much more than our joint participation in the punk prayer in the Christ the Savior Cathedral.”

“Imagine,” said Alyokhina, “that at six this morning you were free: you could go where you want, say what you want, eat what you want. Then you were suddenly arrested; slung in a holding cell, and you were told to strip naked, bend over, then squat. So you’re standing there, naked, utterly helpless. And that’s how your journey to prison begins. It is the first thing you see. And it is legal.”

Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova hope to create Rights Zone in close “ideological and conceptual” cooperation with other public figures were also released on amnesty, such as opposition leader Aleksey Navalny and former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Indeed, in a statement that they want Russian President Vladimir Putin out of office, they backed Khodorkovsky for President.

“For us, [Khodorkovsky] is important, because he’s a very strong person, a very tough person, and an incredible human being who went through a much tougher and much longer prison experience than we did,” said Tolokonnikova. “And that’s why he’s very valuable for us. He will work in the field of human rights protection in prisons, and that’s why we have to count on him.”

Nevertheless, while the former band members do not have the funds to create Rights Zone on their own, they have refused to ask Navalny or Khodorkovsky for sponsorship. Instead, the women plan to raise money by crowdfunding, which is a fundraising method commonly used by activists and artists asking for public donations via the internet.

With several controversial public figures released from Russian prisons on amnesty, only time will tell how successful any of them can be in political reformation, or whether new attempts could place them back in Russian prisons.

For further information, please see:

Telegraph – We Still Want to Cast Vladimir Putin out, Say Freed Pussy Riot Members – December 28, 2013

RadioFreeEurope RadioLiberty – Pussy Riot Members Want Khodorkovsky for President – December 27, 2013

Rolling Stone – Pussy Riot Unveil Plans for Human Rights Organization – December 27, 2013

RT – Pussy Riot Abandons ‘Brand,’ Will Form Human Rights Group – December 27, 2013

Egyptian Students Activists Clash With Police on College Campus

By Darrin Simmons
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

 CAIRO, Egypt-One student was killed, four injured, and numerous others were arrested during a protest supporting the Muslim Brotherhood clashed with Egyptian police at Al-Azhar University, located in Cairo.

Protesters stand outside a burning building on Al-Azhar’s campus (photo courtesy of Al Jazeera)

The Egyptian security forces used teargas and water cannons in dispersing students and supporters of the ousted Morsi.  The student activist was killed after being hit in the face with a birdshot.

The protesters were staged outside of university buildings attempting to prevent students from entering to take their exams.  Protesters threw rocks at the police and set tires on fire to counter tear gas attacks.

Two college buildings caught fire during the violence.  State TV broadcast footage revealed black smoke billowing from the faculty of commerce building as well as setting the agriculture facility building on fire.

Police arrested 101 students for possession of makeshift weapons that included petrol bombs, reported one state news agency.  Eventually, calm had been restored and scheduled exams proceeded after the morning clashes subsided.

The Brotherhood condemned what it called a “violent crackdown on student protests”, saying in a statement that the deployment of security forces on university campuses was an attempt by the government to “silence any voice opposition.”

Protesters gathered at the university following a harsh court verdict on Wednesday against a group of young female protestors.  The verdict implemented a new law criminalizing protests held without police permits with violators facing fines and prison sentences.

Prosecutors have ordered the continued detention of seven Al-Azhar students that the arrested during the protest.  The students are the first to be ordered detained by prosecutors on allegations of belonging to a terrorist group since the Brotherhood’s formal listing on December 25th.

The widespread crackdown against the pro-Morsi movement was enacted following the overthrow of veteran leader Hosni Mubarak in 2011 increasing tension in Egypt which has experienced one of the worst internal strife in modern history.

On Thursday, General Mohammed Ibrahim, the interior minister, stated “security forces will confront any violation and will face with all decisiveness any attempt to cut roads, block public facilities, hinder citizens’ movement or obstruct their interests.”

The protesters later left the campus and marched down a main road, further instigating confrontation with the police.

For more information, please see the following: 

Al Jazeera-Egyptian students clash with security forces-28 December 2013

Euro News-One student dead reported dead in Egypt university clashes-28 December 2013

The Guardian-Egyptian student killed as security forces clash with protesters in Cairo-28 December 2013

Reuters-One killed as Islamist students and police clash in Cairo-28 December 2013

Bombing Targeting Mohamed Chatah Kills Six in Beirut

By Kathryn Maureen Ryan
Impunity Watch, Middle East

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Mohamed Chatah, Lebanon’s former Finance Minister and six others were killed in an attack on Friday in central Beirut. The bombing struck close to the government headquarters and parliament in the capita. Initial medical reports indicated that more than 71 people. The blast was reportedly so powerful it blew out the windows of nearby buildings. The shared glass insured dozens of people.

Six people, including Lebanon’s former finance minister, Mohamad Chatah, were killed in a car bombing on Friday (Photo courtesy of Al Jazeera)

Mohamed Chatah is believed to have been the target of the attack, which was carried out as his convoy was passing through the area.

Chatah was well known as a critic of the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, whom he accused of meddling in his countries domestic affairs. Hezbollah, the leading political organization in Lebanon supports the Assad regime and has sent fighters to help al-Assad’s forces in the Syrian civil war. In his last blog post Chatah wrote that “A united and peaceful Syria ruled by Assad is simply not possible anymore. It has been like that for some time.” He continued saying that “the status quo ante cannot be restored. Iran and Hezbollah realize this more than anyone else.”

In a Tweet posted less than an hour before his death Chatah accused the Hezbollah of trying to take control of the country. The Tweet read “Hezbollah is pressing hard to be granted similar powers in security and foreign policy matters that Syria exercised in Lebanon for 15 years.”

On Friday, Saad Hariri and his March 14 allies issued statements implying that the Syrian government or its ally Hezbollah was responsible for the attack. Hariri’s “March 14 coalition” is a pro-Western, political alliance dominated by Sunni Muslims.

Taking its name for the day in 2005 when thousands of people gathered in Beirut a month after the assassination of Hariri’s father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, demanding an end to what they viewed as a Syrian occupation of Lebanon.

The Assad regime has so far denied any involvement in the attack. Syria’s Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi, in remarks published by state news agency SANA said “these wrong and arbitrary accusations are made in a context of political hatred.”

Chatah’s killing occurred three weeks before the start of a trial of five Hezbollah members indicted for a 2005 bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Saad’s father, and 21 other people. The trial is set to open in The Hague in January.

Hezbollah, denies any role in the 2005 assassination and has refused to cooperate with the court, which it claims is politically motivated.

Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his March 14 coalition have accused Hezbollah, a major Shia political organization in Lebanon, of, of involvement in Chatah’s death. Hariri said “As far as we are concerned the suspects … are those who are fleeing international justice and refusing to represent themselves before the international tribunal”

For more information please see

Al Jazeera – Beirut Car Bombing Kills Top Politician – 27 December 2013

CNN International – Lebanon’s Mohamad Chatah — U.S. Friend, Hezbollah Foe — Killed In Blast – 27 December 2013

The New York Times – Bomb in Beirut Kills Politician, a Critic Of Syria And Hezbollah – 27 December 2013

Reuters – Lebanon’s Hariri Points to Hezbollah over Beirut Killing – 27 December 2013

An Op-Ed by Professor Mark V. Vlasic: Guatemala’s Ríos Montt and an end to Impunity

His name might not be as infamous as “Milosevic” or “Saddam,” but the fight against impunity claimed another “first” earlier this month. Efraín Ríos Montt, a former Guatemalan general, became the first former Latin American president convicted of genocide and war crimes, extending the long arm of justice to another corner of the world, for at least a moment in time.

It was only a moment, because about a week after Ríos Montt was sentenced to 80 years for the slaughter of nearly 2,000 Ixil people (an indigenous Mayan ethnic group), Guatemala’s constitutional court overturned the conviction due to technical issues, in effect, calling for a retrial. This was despite the fact that the earlier ruling found that during his time in power, “Ríos Montt had full knowledge of everything that was happening,” including the torture and killing of the Ixil, “and did not stop it.”

The former dictator had enjoyed immunity from investigation for nearly 15 years, while he served as a Guatemalan congressman, even though a number of inquiries conducted had found him responsible for atrocities. In 2001, international human-rights organizations filed an application with the Guatemalan Public Ministry to spur an investigation into past crimes. When Ríos Montt lost power — and his immunity — in 2012, the Guatemalan government moved quickly to haul him into court.

In many ways, Ríos Montt’s initial conviction was the first step in delivering some sense of justice to the victims of a bloody civil war, where impunity has long-shielded human rights violators from the long arm of the law. And despite this week’s setback, it constitutes not only a win for the human-rights advocates in Guatemala, but also for those internationally.

Referring to the initial judgment, David Tolbert, president of the International Center for Transitional Justice, stated, “This was the first time that a former head of state has been tried for genocide in clearly genuine national proceedings . . . [It] . . . shows the importance of justice being done nationally, even when the odds are long. It is a great leap forward in the struggle for justice in Guatemala and globally.”

Tolbert speaks from experience. A former deputy prosecutor at the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, he is part of an ever-growing “Hague alumni” community that began with the Slobodan Milosevic prosecution, who are both well informed of the challenges of heads-of-state prosecutions, and aware of their unique role in fighting the impunity that, for most of human history, has been the norm.

Thus, whatever the final result of the Ríos Montt case, the fact that he faced a courtroom trial, at all, is historic, as he is part of a critical international trend that is targeting those heads-of-state who, traditionally, were those most likely to escape justice. Because today, the question is not if another former leader will ever be charged, but rather when, and who is next?

This is a fundamental change in the presumption. For centuries, dictators acted with impunity, perpetrating atrocities without fear of prosecution. But unlike those of us who studied in the 20th century — the next generation will only know a world where such terrible dictators actually do stand trial. Such a presumption will embolden the next generation of leaders to act — and perhaps with time — bring a true end to impunity.

Such an end does not depend on any one trial. When Milosevic died, just months before his trial was to conclude, I was disappointed. But then it occurred to me, the “Butcher of the Balkans,” the most powerful man in Yugoslavia, in the end, died in a prison cell, yearning to be free — and arguably changed the arc of history. That is because today, we are not surprised by a trial in Guatemala, nor would a trial in Syria cause shockwaves. And that we are starting to expect justice might be the biggest change of all.

Mark V. Vlasic, an adjunct professor of law and senior fellow at Georgetown University, served on the Slobodan Milosevic prosecution trial team at the U.N. war crimes tribunal. A former White House Fellow to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and adviser to the President’s Special Envoy to Sudan, he leads the international practice at Madison Law & Strategy Group.

An Op-Ed by Professor Mark V. Vlasic: When Museums Do the Right Thing

STONES and bones rarely make the front page, and even less frequently in the same month, but this has been no ordinary month. And it’s not over yet.

On May 4, The New York Times announced that the Metropolitan Museum of Art would voluntarily repatriate twin 10th century statues to Cambodia, after the museum received “dispositive” evidence that the pieces were products of the illicit antiquities trade.

A few miles away and a few days later, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security celebrated the not-so-voluntary repatriation of a looted 70-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus bataar (a relative of Tyrannosaurus rex) to Mongolia, having seized it from a self-described “commercial paleontologist” (and now confessed smuggler) named Eric Prokopi. Taken from the Gobi Desert, the dinosaur bones were seized last year after Prokopi tried to sell them in violation of U.S. and Mongolian law.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Cambodia publicly called upon other American museums to examine their Khmer collections and return any pieces that were plundered after the start of the country’s civil war in 1970.

With these two high-profile returns, attention may turn to Sotheby’s auction house next. The historic institution is fighting in New York courts to hawk a Cambodian sculpture that — along with the Met’s pair — once formed a three-dimensional tableau at the ancient temple of Koh Ker. These stone figures remained in situ for a millennium, until the country descended into war against the Khmer Rouge, when they were allegedly looted and trafficked overseas. Having traveled around the world through illicit and licit markets, the statues finally resurfaced in Manhattan.

In 2011, the Cambodian government asked Sotheby’s to return the piece in its possession, and enlisted the help of the U.S. government when the auction house declined. As a result, Sotheby’s now finds itself in the sights of the very federal agents and attorneys who so successfully investigated and prosecuted the T. bataar case.

Of course, Sotheby’s may still follow the Met’s lead, decide that its reputation is more important than a high-end sculpture, and repatriate the contested piece. But at the least, this month’s headlines offer a lesson. In both the Met and T. bataar cases, the looted items are going home. While the press and public are now honoring the museum, Prokopi is facing years in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.

Of course, the return of treasures like these to Phnom Penh and Ulan Bator are still the exception, but they are growing as governments, law enforcement agencies and the public increasingly realize that looting cultural treasures is a crime — and not a victimless one. Just last year, the Dallas Museum of Art returned to Turkey a 194 A.D. mosaic, “Orpheus Taming Wild Animals,” which was likely looted from the floor of a Roman building in the southeastern part of the country.

But even as these returns are being made, looters are devastating ancient sites in search of prized artifacts to sell on the international market. To underscore the point, the very week that one of us visited the ancient Roman cities of Leptis Magna and Sabratha in Libya, we heard about the looting of a “heavyweight” statue in the middle of the night.

The smuggling of stolen cultural objects has become an underground industry that spans the globe. Though the F.B.I. estimates that the value of this black market is as much as $6 billion a year, we do not really know the actual extent of the trade in illicitly obtained antiquities. (Researchers at the University of Glasgow have received a $1.5 million grant from the European Research Council to attempt to quantify and qualify it.) Nevertheless, if looting on the current scale continues, by the time we have accurate numbers there will be much less of our world heritage to protect. This will not only be a loss for culture and science — there are additional if not readily apparent side effects. The black market in antiquities has been reported as a source of income for organized crime, rebel fighters and even terrorist groups.

The U.S. government, and specifically the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security, should be commended for treating the illicit trade in cultural objects like the crime that it is, protecting the past, and improving America’s international relationships in the process.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York should likewise be praised for refusing to hold on to looted antiquities. Unlike Prokopi, museum authorities did not wait for a court order or lawsuit to return stolen property, thereby demonstrating that it is never too early to do the right thing. In light of this month’s news, it is hoped that Sotheby’s and others will realize that it’s never too late, either. As Edmund Burke said, “All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

Mark V. Vlasic, a senior fellow and adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University, served as the first head of operations of the World Bank’s Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative and leads the international practice at Madison Law & Strategy Group. Tess Davis, a researcher at the University of Glasgow, served as the executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation, and is working with Cambodia to combat the illicit trade in the kingdom’s antiquities.