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Originally published February 18, 2014 at 6:34 AM | Page modified February 19, 2014 at 1:09 AM

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Sochi tension: Pussy Riot members briefly detained

Russian punk group Pussy Riot burst onto the Olympic scene Tuesday when two of its members were picked up by police in host city Sochi -- and then ran away defiant down a rain-soaked street a few hours later, shouting and wearing their trademark garish balaclavas.


Associated Press

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SOCHI, Russia —

Russian punk group Pussy Riot burst onto the Olympic scene Tuesday when two of its members were picked up by police in host city Sochi -- and then ran away defiant down a rain-soaked street a few hours later, shouting and wearing their trademark garish balaclavas.

The police questioning of Russia's most recognizable punk rockers, along with detentions of gay rights and other activists in recent days, brought political tensions to the fore at Vladimir Putin's showcase Winter Olympics.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, along with seven others, were held by police near Sochi's ferry terminal, a popular area for fans celebrating the Olympics. Police said they were questioned in connection with a theft at the hotel where they were staying. No charges were filed.

"Putin will teach you how to love the motherland!" the women chanted on leaving the police station, their fists in the air and blue, pink and orange ski masks concealing their faces.

Pussy Riot gained international attention in 2012 after barging into Moscow's main cathedral and performing a "punk prayer" in which they entreated the Virgin Mary to save Russia from Putin, who was on the verge of returning to the Russian presidency for a third term.

Tolokonnikova and Alekhina were sentenced to two years in prison, but were released in December under an amnesty bill seen as a Kremlin effort to assuage critics of its human rights record before the Olympics. Both women called for the boycott of the Sochi Games.

Tolokonnikova said Tuesday's detention followed three days of police harassment. She also said the two band members were detained for several hours the previous two days.

"We members of Pussy Riot have been here since late Sunday and we were constantly detained since then," Tolokonnikova said after her release. "We are constantly surrounded by people, not you journalists, but people who are shadowing us, following our every move and looking for any excuse to detain us."

Pussy Riot, a performance-art collective involving a loose membership of feminists who edit their actions into music videos, has become an international flashpoint for those who contend Putin's government has exceeded its authority in dealing with an array of issues, notably human and gay rights.

Tolokonnikova's husband, Pyotr Verzilov, and other people who were detained on Tuesday insisted that Pussy Riot were not protesting or demonstrating when they were taken off the street. But Tolokonnikova said the band is in Sochi with "the goal of staging a Pussy Riot protest."

It was not immediately clear whether Pussy Riot would be staying in Sochi or whether they would be protesting in the coming days.

Yevgeny Feldman, a photographer who has been shadowing Pussy Riot for the past two days and was detained with them Tuesday afternoon, said the band members were filming videos around town for a new song.

Tolokonnikova also said police had shoved her and other detainees and that the group would file a complaint about their treatment to Russia's Investigative Committee.

The area where the group members were detained is in downtown Sochi, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of the seaside Olympic venues.

Russia has put severe limitations on protests in Sochi during the Olympics, ordering that any demonstration must get approval and be held only in the neighborhood of Khosta, an area between Adler and downtown Sochi that is unlikely to be visited by outsiders.

Russia's suppression of protests has been widely denounced in the West and the Pussy Riot detentions brought renewed criticism.

"In Putin's Russia, the authorities have turned the Olympic rings - a worldwide symbol of hope and striving for the best of the human spirit - into handcuffs to shackle freedom of expression," John Dalhuisen, Europe director for Amnesty International, said in a statement.

The actions taken against Pussy Riot came a day after an Italian transgender activist and former lawmaker was detained at the Olympics. Vladimir Luxuria was stopped while carrying a rainbow flag that read in Russian: "Gay is OK." On Sunday, Luxuria said she was held by police and told not to wear clothing with slogans promoting gay rights.

Environmental activists and members of an ethnic minority native to the Sochi region have also been detained in recent days and weeks.

Since their release in December, the 24-year-old Tolokonnikova and the 25-year-old Alekhina have taken on a more serious demeanor and made many appearances overseas to push their campaign for improved conditions in Russia's prisons.

Until Tuesday, there had been no indication they would resume the fist-and-chant protests they got famous for.

___

Associated Press writer Jim Heintz contributed to this report.



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