Image Between mid July and early September, an eery quiet descends over the UK Parliament's House of Commons. Usually filled with robust, often raucous debate, it shuts up shop for the summer recess, giving MPs a couple of months away from the Commons to deal with other things, or to take a holiday.

Recently, Kerry McCarthy, Member of Parliament for Bristol East since 2005, jumped on a plane to spend a few days overseas. So far, so unexceptional, except she wasn't off on holiday, but visiting Moscow to attend the trial of the three detained members of Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot, having received an invitation from their defense team. Punknews editor Andy Waterfield got in touch with Ms McCarthy, and asked her about the trip.




You recently returned from a short visit to Moscow, at the invitation of the Pussy Riot defense team. Could you tell our readers how that came about?

I‚??d been tweeting some links to the Pussy Riot case and had also asked a couple of written parliamentary questions, which were written up on Punknews and on Louder than War, so @FreePussyRiot knew of my interest and got in touch. It was a spur of the moment decision to go - and once the trial had started and it became apparent the judge was rather rushing through things, cutting off the defence questions and not allowing them to call most of their witnesses, I had to get out there pretty quickly, because it looked like the trial could be over more quickly than people originally predicted. As luck would have it, I got out there for days 6 and 7 of the trial, and it ended the next day with the three women‚??s closing statements.



Your Parliamentary record, particularly your steadfast support of the Live Music Bill earlier this year, shows you care a good deal about independent music, and you've expressed strong policy interests in human rights also. Were those interests part of the reason this particular case hit home with you?

It was music that made me political - I was a teenager in the late 70s and early 80s, which was the heyday of political music (in my opinion!) with bands like the Clash, Gang of Four, Stiff Little Fingers... and also a time when the music press was very political. I got my political education from the NME! So it‚??s also been important to me, and I‚??ve always been closer to the alternative scene(s) than the mainstream - which meant I knew where Pussy Riot were coming from, rather than just viewing it as a silly stunt, which many did.



I studied Russian at university (after reading a review of Joy Division‚??s Still in the NME which mentioned Dostoevsky - I was a true Joy Division obsessive in sixth form days). So I‚??ve always been interested in Russia, and have visited five or six times over the years. And, as you say, I think human rights issues are very important - I‚??m now shadow human rights minister within Labour‚??s foreign affairs team - so all those things were factors behind my interest in Pussy Riot.



Given your position as a sitting Member of Parliament, did you have any reservations about visiting Russia to learn about a case the Putin regime might be keen to see the back of? Did you have any contact with the Russian authorities prior to, or during your visit?

No and no... except to apply for a visa. I thought there might be some contact when I got back, given the publicity, but there hasn‚??t been. My arrival there was low profile, but I got lots of media attention after the first day of the trial when news got out I was there.



Talk us through the sequence of events between reaching Moscow, and arriving in court on Monday morning, if you could?

I arrived in Moscow Sunday evening, and someone I‚??d been put in touch with came to pick me up from my hotel, and we went round someone‚??s flat where I met with Pussy Riot supporters, and was shown some footage of their rehearsals, their performance in Red Square and a Faith No More gig where they donned balaclavas in support. Pussy Riot is associated with Gruppa Voina (Voina is Russian for War so I guess it means the War Group). They are performance artists/ activists - Nadia from Pussy Riot and her husband Pyotr have been involved for a number of years - and I was shown a film of a bizarre stunt they‚??d undertaken to highlight traffic policemen allegedly taking bribes, which involved following them around offering them plates of roast chicken, washing their cars for them and telling passing motorists they were the officers‚?? families and were worried they weren‚??t being paid enough! We also talked at some length about why they‚??d become politically active and the growing protest movement in Russia. One thing that was interesting - they said that the bands who‚??d been political during the collapse of communism were still around, and still popular, but were no longer political. They‚??d become very mainstream. The protest movement now doesn‚??t really have its music. I‚??ve been in other countries - Burma for example - where rap music has been an integral part of the protest movement, as it was during the Arab Spring too, but in Russia it‚??s peripheral. Pussy Riot are more performance art than musicians, although they do have a few songs...



What was the atmosphere like in the courtroom itself? We've read reports of attack dogs being present in the courtroom, as well as the judge seeming somewhat less than objective in the undertaking of her duties. Did you witness anything of that sort on Monday?

There was an Alsatian (German Shepherd) in the courtroom for some of the time, and then a Rottweiler. They just looked thirsty and bored when I was there, but I‚??ve seen footage of the Rottweiler getting aggressive. There were also armed police in the courtroom, as well as the prison guards. There wasn‚??t much space for press/ supporters - only four rows of seats - but it was packed. The court officials were actually very helpful and tried to squeeze as many people in as possible - and they let me queue jump! There were people queuing on the stairs to get in, mostly young people and media.



I wasn‚??t in court on the days the victims gave evidence (those who say they were insulted or traumatised by the performance - most of them worked in the cathedral but I think some just saw the footage afterwards) - it‚??s important I think to note that this didn‚??t take place during a sermon or prayers, and the church was full of tourists when I went there on the Tuesday - the band chose it because it represented the power of the church, not because it had any spiritual significance - which is important given that the trial hinged around whether they were motivated by religious hatred or, as they argued, it was a political act. The offence they were charged with was ‚??hooliganism motivated by religious hatred‚?? under ancient church law.



I‚??ve read reports that the defence weren‚??t allowed to cross-examine the victims or prosecution witnesses properly, and they were only able to call two character witnesses for the defendants (the third one had gone missing from the court I think). They weren‚??t allowed to call the expert witnesses they wanted to challenge the interpretation of religious hatred law and to support their claim it was a political protest. The prosecuting lawyer in his summing up said that it wasn‚??t political as no politician‚??s name was mentioned - but the song they performed was called 'Virgin Mary, Chase Putin Out'!



There have also been reports that the three defendants have been denied adequate food and sleep. How did they look on Monday? While one might expect signs of fatigue in a case like this, did they look especially underslept?

They looked pale, and complained that they‚??d only had a few hours sleep each night. Sometimes they‚??d had 12 hour days in court, but had arrived 2 hours before court began, and had a 4-5 hour round trip from the jail. They also complained they weren‚??t fed at all when at the court, and they were too tired to read court papers or give instructions to their lawyers. But despite this, they didn‚??t seem subdued or downcast. They stayed strong throughout.



Did you have a chance to meet any members of the Pussy Riot collective during your visit?

I met supporters and one member of Pussy Riot. See above re the Sunday night in Moscow. On the Monday I met someone who‚??d taken part in the protest outside the court on Friday, when a few people in balaclavas climbed up onto the balcony opposite the court - he was given 5 days imprisonment later on that day. I also met someone who‚??d served 7 days for being part of an ‚??Occupy‚?? camp in support of Pussy Riot.



Were any other foreign politicians invited by the defense team, as far as you're aware? Did you have any discussions with them about the ways in which politicians and activists outside Russia might best support the three defendants?

I think a German politician came out during the pre-trial hearing, but I don‚??t know of any others. We talked a bit about raising awareness of the case outside Russia, but I think that all took off once the media started reporting the trial. I‚??ve done my bit to raise awareness - I‚??ve done about 5 articles and lots of interviews - and kept tweeting. There‚??s a lot of support now from celebrities. Whatever you think of Madonna her support for them onstage in Moscow was a huge moment, and there are events being planned around the world for Friday 17th when the verdict is expected.



What has the press response to your visit been like? Has it been reported widely in Russia at all? What did your constituents in Bristol East make of it?

When I came out of court on Monday I was faced with a barrage of cameras and microphones, some of which were Russian media, others weren‚??t (eg the Wall Street Journal was there). I did a statement to the cameras and answered lots of questions, but also did about a dozen one on one interviews. It seemed to me the media was totally behind the women; they were pleased I was there, and that I was speaking out in support. Locally I‚??ve had a lot of support from constituents who think it was great that I went - in my own time (I could have been on holiday as parliament is in recess) and at my own expense. One local Lib Dem tried to make an issue in the local press out of me leaving my constituency for 48 hours, but he was just being an idiot as usual!



I think people wouldn‚??t at first have realised why this is so important a case - they see the surface silliness of the outfits and the can-can dancing and the ridiculous name - but there have been so many comment pieces in the press saying this is a real crisis moment for Putin, I think people now realise it‚??s about more than that.



As a Foreign Office Minister in the Shadow Cabinet, what steps, if any, will you be taking to make sure this case remains in the limelight, if a guilty verdict is returned?

I wrote to William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, and the Archbishop of Canterbury before I went to Moscow, and I‚??m still waiting for replies. The Archbishop received an award from the Russian Orthodox church a few years ago (which he was criticised for accepting in some quarters) so he must have some connection with them and some influence, but as far as I‚??m aware he hasn‚??t spoken out. It is within the church‚??s power to drop the charges... or was, maybe it‚??s too late now the trial has concluded.



Once we have the verdict I will follow up again with our Foreign Office, and will be talking to their lawyers about the next steps. No-one expects them to be acquitted but a lot depends on the length of sentence they get. They might go to appeal, or even to the court of human rights, but everyone is focused on this Friday for now.




Bands in this story