WASHINGTON – As a Portland artist and art professor, Robert Lieber seems an unlikely ambassador for a group of Russian punk rockers whose legal fight has garnered attention from musical icons, feminists and free speech activists around the globe.

But on Thursday, Lieber was on Capitol Hill with the husband of one imprisoned member of the band Pussy Riot, the group’s legal defense team and representatives of Amnesty International. Their mission: to spread awareness of the Russian band’s case in Congress and build support for a bill that would withhold U.S. visas from Russian officials involved in human rights offenses.

“As soon as you see this video you’re like, ‘Who is going to stand up for these women?’” Lieber said. “I felt like I could help explain it. And I felt there are many causes out there, but this is one that relates very specifically to my profession.”

The video Lieber refers to is grainy, low-budget footage shot in February of several Pussy Riot members performing a song calling for divine intervention in opposition to would-be Russian President Vladimir Putin while dancing near the altar of one of Moscow’s Russian Orthodox cathedrals. Putin was elected president in May.

Three Pussy Riot members were arrested after the video went viral on the Internet, sparking an uproar that soon spread far beyond Russia’s borders. The international outrage intensified last month when a Russian court sentenced the three women to two years in jail for “hooliganism driven by religious hatred.” The band’s supporters say the arrests and trial were all about suppressing public dissent.

Lieber, who teaches art history and other classes at Southern Maine Community College and the University of Southern Maine, said he was familiar with the type of artistic protests that Pussy Riot has come to be known for. But after hearing of their arrest and seeing the video, he sent a message to the administrators of the website freepussyriot.org within days of their arrest last winter offering help.

“Within a 24-hour period, I was given a log-in and password to (the website),” Lieber said while standing outside of the Capitol on Thursday. “And within a week I was helping to recruit people for other languages because we’re in five different languages. And we have been a pretty solid, strong team the whole time.”

Since then, Lieber has served as a primary liaison between the group’s supporters and Amnesty International as well as musicians such as Yoko Ono, Bjork and Ad Rock of the Beastie Boys.

“We consider them to be prisoners of conscience and our members around the world have been campaigning on their behalf,” Adotei Akwei, Amnesty International’s managing director for government relations, said Thursday while the group waited to talk to Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District.

Other stars who have called for the release of the Pussy Riot members include Madonna, Paul McCartney and, on Thursday, Myanmar democracy leader and longtime political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi met with delegation members Friday during an event that Amnesty International had organized around Suu Kyi’s visit to Washington. She called on Russian authorities to release the women.

“I don’t see why people should not sing whatever they want to sing,” she said, according to The Associated Press.

Among the delegation making the rounds Thursday on Capitol Hill were Pyotr Verzilov, husband of imprisoned band member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova.

Accompanied by the couple’s 4-year-old daughter, Gera, Verzilov visited with several members of Congress or their staff members to talk about a bill known as the Magnitsky Act.

The bill’s namesake is Sergei Magnitsky, an anti-corruption lawyer who supporters claim was tortured to death while in a Russian prison. The legislation would prohibit those implicated in Magnitsky’s abuse and death — as well as others in Russia who commit “gross violations of human rights” — from obtaining U.S. visas. They could also have their bank assets frozen.

The bill earned a unanimous vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in June while a sister bill was approved by a House committee. Pingree and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill in the House, and Maine Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins are co-sponsoring the Senate version.

Verzilov said afterward that he was encouraged by their reception, adding that one congressman, U.S. Rep. Steven Cohen, D-Tenn., seemed “quite interested” in championing the bill.

By Thursday evening, the group was on a train headed to New York where, on Friday, they were to receive the Lennon Ono Grant for Peace, a $50,000 prize given out by Yoko Ono in honor of her late husband, John Lennon.

Later Friday, they will participate in a program that Lieber coordinated at New York University School of Law where Pussy Riot’s legal team will discuss legal strategies of the women’s case with students and professors as the Russian team prepares to appeal the verdict.

Although Lieber said he never expected to become so involved in Pussy Riot’s cause, he now feels a certain obligation as he continues his volunteer work on behalf of the imprisoned women as well as other band members who have escaped arrest.

“It’s a freedom of expression issue and also a balance of justice,” he said outside the Capitol. 

Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

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