Russian Rockers Visit Washington To Lobby For Band Mates

Two members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot came to Washington to meet members of the Obama administration and Congress. The feminist activist band is hoping to persuade U.S. officials to visit two of their members in Russian penal colonies to highlight their plight.

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Members of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot are in Washington today. They're trying to raise awareness of their case. Two members are still in prison for staging a punk protest in a Russian Orthodox Church last year.

The Obama administration has voiced concern about their detention. But the young women, known for brash performances with faces covered, are hoping U.S. officials can do more. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The musicians have a tricky mission here to raise awareness about their cause, but to do so under the radar. They're using pseudonyms so Russian authorities can't track their meetings with members of Congress and the State Department. This is the voice of the interpreter for one band member who calls herself Shaiba.

SHAIBA: (Through translator) We know that certain members of the State Department and Congress can actually visit Russia with the purpose to pay more attention of the problem of our band and our girlfriends. We asked specifically so - to travel those colonies where they're being detained.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

KELEMEN: The crackdown on Pussy Riot followed this political protest in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUNK PRAYER: MOTHER OF GOD DRIVE PUTIN AWAY")

PUNK RIOT: (Foreign language spoken)

KELEMEN: Band members in colorful balaclavas performed the "Punk Prayer," denouncing President Vladimir Putin and his links to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Three young women were convicted of hooliganism. One was released on parole. But Shaiba says two others are in work camps, mixed in with murderers and drug addicts and forced to sew military uniforms.

SHAIBA: (Through translator) Its humiliation because they are making uniforms for people who are - have imprisoned them and are keeping guard.

KELEMEN: One of the jailed band members recently ended a hunger strike. The other, Shaiba says, is having health problems and not getting treated. She says she brought up these issues with several congressmen, including Dana Rohrabacher of California, who was in Moscow recently suggesting he agreed with the prosecution of Pussy Riot. He has since said that the prison terms were too harsh. But Elisa Massimino, president of Human Rights First, says the damage was done.

ELISA MASSIMINO: When members of congress go to Russia and give cover to Putin's repression of free expression and dissent, that's extremely damaging.

KELEMEN: She says the case against Pussy Riot is part of pattern in Russia - using laws against extremism to crack down on dissent. And for those who argue that the U.S. should tone down its criticism to get Russia's cooperation on Syria, Massimino says, think again.

MASSIMINO: Putin's going to do what is in Putin's interest no matter what we say about human rights. And its extremely important to those who are on the front lines pressing for democracy and human rights in Russia and in any country that they feel strongly that the United States is doing everything it can to stand in solidarity with them.

KELEMEN: The young Russian musicians who came here didn't want to speak about themselves when asked whether they live in fear of prosecution. This one goes by Fara, though again, we'll hear just her interpreter.

FARA: (Through translator) The balaclavas, the head thing that we use, it's just - it's part of a concept of our entire band. Its anonymous. And we represent our band, not ourselves in here.

KELEMEN: And they still see themselves as mainly artists even as they make their rounds in Washington boardrooms.

FARA: (Through translator) You can perceived whatever is happening right here and right now, just as must of an artistic activity as any.

(LAUGHTER)

KELEMEN: They were not wearing their balaclavas though, as they met reporters over breakfast. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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