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Pussy Riot duo "pay tribute" to Russia government for award nomination

Members of Russian punk rock band Pussy Riot Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (R) and Maria Alyokhina arrive to meet the media during an introduction
Members of Russian punk rock band Pussy Riot Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (R) and Maria Alyokhina arrive to meet the media during an introduction

By John O'Callaghan

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Pussy Riot's nomination for an arts award in Singapore should be extended to the Russian government for giving prominence to the protest collective by jailing members over their "Punk Prayer" video, two of the women said with heavy sarcasm.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, released from prison in December just before the end of their two-year terms, drew overwhelming attention at a media event on Friday for 20 Asian artists in the running for the Prudential Eye Awards.

Pussy Riot, whose "Punk Prayer" featured members performing a profanity-laced protest against Russian President Vladimir Putin at a Moscow cathedral in 2012, is shortlisted in the digital/video category for the awards ceremony on Saturday.

"We are talking about our work with media - how to take a single thought and spread it across the world. That is what we did in cooperation with the Russian state," Tolokonnikova said.

"This award is not only for us but for the whole political system that exists in Russia today."

With Russia about to host the Winter Olympics in Sochi next month, the Pussy Riot case plays prominently in criticism about civil liberties, human rights and the Putin administration's treatment of dissent.

A third Pussy Riot member, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was freed in October 2012 when a judge suspended her sentence on appeal.

"If nothing of what happened to us after that action had happened, there might have never been any nomination. And here we should pay tribute to the Russian state," Alyokhina said.

Chiming in, Tolokonnikova said: "Maybe some Russian official should have been invited here to share the nomination with us."

Tolokonnikova's husband, Russian-Canadian artist Pyotr Verzilov, said the Pussy Riot members were aware of sensitivities in Singapore, where public protests are subject to restrictions. The Southeast Asian city-state is given low rankings for press freedom by media watchdogs.

"We are political artists and they understand the whole thing around this issue," Verzilov told Reuters. "Obviously, we feel that the organizers do feel certain pressure, not that they have said something."

RUSSIAN PRISON CONDITIONS

Pussy Riot, which the women said is an anonymous group of many people, is now focusing on prisoners' rights in Russia - a project that will include video and other creative forms. Tolokonnikova wrote a letter while serving her sentence decrying prison conditions and saying she feared for her life.

"We will continue to be involved in politics for sure. But now we are establishing an NGO that will protect the rights of prisoners," Tolokonnikova said. "Human rights activism has always been part of political activity in Russia."

With Russia's image under heavy scrutiny before the Winter Games, Putin eased restrictions on protests in Sochi, released the two Pussy Riot members and pardoned former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who spent 10 years in prison in what critics said was punishment for challenging the president.

Putin, who denies any notion of Russians being jailed for political reasons, has been in power as president or prime minister since 2000. He has not ruled out seeking another six-year term in 2018.

After their release from prison, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were unbowed in their criticism of Putin.

"I do not think it is a humanitarian act. I think it is a PR stunt," Alyokhina said in late December. "My attitude to the president has not changed."

(Editing by Ron Popeski)

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