Nadya Tolokonikova and Masha Alyokhina appear in a video launched Tuesday by the human-rights group the Voice Project. As part of its #SolidarityWisconsin campaign, the video petitions Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen to drop the prosecution of some 400 individuals who were ticketed last summer for singing at the Capitol.
Russia's Pussy Riot are a feminist protest group and performance-art collective that also perform as a punk band. They are known for their provocative performances in public places, especially an anti-Putin "punk prayer" they staged two years ago, in which they begged the Virgin Mary to oust the Russian leader. This event drew international media attention.
Alyokhina, Tolokonikova and Yekaterina Sumtsevich were sentenced to serve two years in a penal colony in 2012. Released in 2013, they protested during the Sochi Olympics and last week were assaulted and injured at a fast-food restaurant in Nizhny Novgorod.
The Voice Project, which started four years ago and is based in New York, describes its mission as using "the power of music to effect social change, alleviate suffering and promote human rights around the globe."
Cofounder Hunter Heaney says his group reached out to Pussy Riot members shortly after they were arrested. "We'd been looking at efforts where music was the agent of social change," he says in an interview with Isthmus. "The impact they made with a 40-second song was incredible. They fomented a human-rights music in Russia and a referendum on free speech there."
Hunter says the group helped raise money for the imprisoned musicians for legal fees, food and childcare. It also raised awareness of their plight: "Making sure the spotlight of the world stayed on them as long as possible."
Bringing attention to human-rights violations, adds Heaney, makes it "harder to do things in the dark -- abuse prisoners, kill dissidents, hopefully prosecute prisoners for singing in a state Capitol building in the U.S."
Heaney says his group is constantly scouring the Internet for protest movements. "Wisconsin was one of the first that popped up and we decided to look into it."
While individuals began gathering to sing at the Capitol on March 11, 2011, Capitol Police did not issue tickets to protesters until September 2012, when the Department of Administration implemented new permitting restrictions. The most recent crackdown on the singers was last summer, when about 400 tickets were issued to protesters.
The Department of Administration has defended its permitting rules, arguing that the state has long had a process for scheduling events held in state office buildings.
Dana Brueck, spokesperson for the Wisconsin Department of Justice, which has been in charge of prosecuting Capitol protest tickets since the fall of 2012, drew distinctions between the treatment of protesters in Wisconsin and Russia. "Unlike Russia, no one has been arrested for the content of his or her speech," she said in an email. "Unlike Russia, any person could have gathered peaceably and espoused whatever message he or she wished without fear of a citation if he or she obtained a permit, or under the current rules, a reservation."
And, she added, "Unlike Russia, anyone cited enjoys the protections of the federal and state constitutions and the presumption of innocence. The notion that Wisconsin is like Russia, that it prevents protests and punishes dissenters based on their speech is without factual basis and cavalierly discounts the true repression of people who live in un-free societies."
The video features many of the protesters ticketed at the sing-along, stressing their diversity. Firefighters, teachers and grandparents are among those represented. Democratic state Reps. Chris Taylor and Melissa Sargent are interviewed, as is attorney Jim Murray, who has represented some of those ticketed.
Attempts to stifle free speech are not just happening overseas, says Heaney. "It's not just Russia, it's not just Iran. It's right here as well."
Heaney says the video should bring national and international attention to the prosecution of the Solidarity Sing Along participants.
"I can't imagine anybody seeing this story and not being outraged that this is happening," he says. "I think more people will see it and will say of course this should not happen and it's only happening because we're not paying attention."
Jessica Steinhoff contributed to this report.
[Editor's Note: This article was updated at 2:56 p.m. to include comments from Dana Brueck, spokesperson for the Wisconsin Department of Justice.]