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What has happened to Pussy Riot's Nadya?

By Frida Ghitis
November 13, 2013 -- Updated 1937 GMT (0337 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frida Ghitis: Nadya Tolokonnikova, jailed Pussy Riot activist, has vanished
  • Amnesty says she was taken from prison in car; family doesn't know where she is, she says
  • Ghitis: Her band, and Putin regime's crackdown on it, shone light on Russia's repression
  • Ghitis: It's feared she's in Siberia, her health at risk. Russia making her an icon

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter @FridaGhitis.

(CNN) -- Why is Vladimir Putin scared of 24-year-old Nadya Tolokonnikova? What have his people done to her? Why won't they let her family contact her?

Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova, the Russian artist and activist who leads the provocatively named punk rock band Pussy Riot, was thrown into a car by Russian prison authorities three weeks ago, according to Amnesty International.

After an international campaign, including an Amnesty International petition, the office of the Russian ombudsman now says that authorities have confirmed suspicions that she is on her way to a prison camp in Siberia, thousands of miles away from her husband and her small daughter, with an Orwellian claim that the move aims to "promote her resocialization."

Tolokonnikova and Pussy Riot became a thorn in Putin's side with their performance pieces, when they wore the colorful face-covering balaclavas that became their trademark, and launched into routines that were clearly meant to outrage. Their work had a cutting political message.

Imprisoned Pussy Riot band member transferred to another prison

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

She and her band, you may remember, got into serious legal trouble early last year after they staged a flash-mob style performance of their "Punk Prayer" at Moscow's main Russian Orthodox cathedral, chanting "Virgin Mary, mother of God, put Putin away." It was a protest against the church's support for Putin's increasingly controversial rule. The video quickly had millions of viewings. Within days, the performers were arrested and charged with "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred."

Tolokonnikova, along with her Pussy Riot colleague Maria Alyokhina, was sentenced to two years in prison. She is scheduled to be released in March, but experience has shown that in Russia, the government can find ways to delay a prisoner's release practically forever, if that is what it chooses.

Just ask Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the once-wealthy businessman who became a Putin critic. While he was already imprisoned in Siberia, the government brought new charges against him, piling more years to his incarceration.

As with Khodorkovsky, Putin's Russia has turned Tolokonnikova into a symbol of state repression and proof that the government cannot tolerate dissent or criticism. Every day she is out of sight, the Russian government looks more frightened of its own people, more eager to suppress freedom of expression and more comfortable violating human rights.

That is definitely not a good look for a country preparing to host the world in the Winter Olympics.

Clearly, the tactics of Tolokonnikova's Pussy Riot are not to everyone's taste. Some find them deeply offensive. But the state's ferocious response to the actions of a group of young activists was hardly warranted by the scale of their transgressions.

Authorities started by holding them without bail and compiling an indictment that ran almost 3,000 pages. Their lawyers were given two days to review the material, prompting the defendants to go on hunger strike to protest the unfairness of the proceedings.

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Tolokonnikova is a political prisoner. And now, in the worst tradition of Soviet Russia, Tolokonnikova, a musician, wife and mother, has been thrown into Russia's Gulag system.

The timing of Tolokonnikova's disappearance helps explain its motivation. The government is punishing her and her family and trying to intimidate her because, incredibly, even in prison she has not stopped pointing out the excesses of the regime.

On September 23, she went on a hunger strike to protest the brutal conditions experienced by her and her fellow prisoners at the infamous women's prison camp in Mordovia. Before she started her hunger strike, she wrote a letter explaining the reasons for her protest.

"When they send you off to Mordovia," she wrote, "it is as though you're headed to the scaffold." She described the sadistic punishments, the unceasing slave labor; the horrors of daily life. She told the story of a woman who was beaten to death in the third unit, "the third," she explained, "is the pressure unit where they put prisoners that need to undergo daily beatings."

The women, she said, work 17 hours a day with four hours of sleep and a day off every month and a half. The administration views the prisoners as free labor for the mass manufacturing of police uniforms, she noted, asking pointedly, "Where does the money they get for them go?"

Even from prison Tolokonnikova was able to rattle the system. Her critique of the prison system made waves, even as her health declined. After 10 days on hunger strike she was transferred to the prison hospital. When she stopped the strike, expecting to be moved to a more humane prison, she was returned to the same labor camp and she restarted her hunger strike.

Then she vanished.

In Russia's dismal prison system, the family's material and psychological support can make the difference between life and death. But while a prisoner is being transferred, the government has no responsibility to inform relatives of their whereabouts.

Prison authorities say Tolokonnikova is in transit, on her way to a new facility.

Her husband, Peter Verzilov, says he had good reason to believe his wife is being sent to a prison colony deep inside Siberia, probably the worst place on Earth to spend the winter. B

There is reason to fear for her health, after her lengthy hunger strike, and to worry about how she is being treated by correctional authorities.

The country's human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, says he has been told by prison officials that she is in "satisfactory" health, in transit to a new prison.

By its vindictive treatment of Nadya Tolokonnikova and its efforts to frighten her into submission, the Russian government is turning someone who would have been a fairly obscure activist into a major international figure, and in the process it is shining a light on the very abuses to which she wants to draw attention. This may be ultimately good for the Russian people, but it is exceedingly dangerous for Tolokonnikova. Russia is a place where government critics have faced mysterious and tragic endings.

It is not a moment too soon for the Putin government to show Tolokonnikova, to show it is treating her humanely, and to make good on its word to release her as soon as her current sentence expires.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

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