Writer Salman Rushdie has joined more than 200 leading authors in condemning Russia's controversial stance on gay rights. The Satanic Verses author accused Russian authorities of imposing a "chokehold" on free speech by banning the 'promotion' of homosexuality.
More than 200 other writers, including Nobel laureates Gunter Grass, Orhan Pamuk, Wole Soyinka, and Elfriede Jelinek, have signed an open letter to President Vladimir Putin ahead of the Winter Olympics, which are due to launch in Sochi, Russia this week (ends09Feb14).
It states, "As writers and artists, we cannot stand quietly by as we watch our fellow writers and journalists pressed into silence or risking prosecution and often drastic punishment for the mere act of communicating their thoughts.
"A healthy democracy must hear the independent voices of all its citizens; the global community needs to hear, and be enriched by, the diversity of Russian opinion. We therefore urge the Russian authorities to repeal these laws that strangle free speech."
Rushdie tells British newspaper The Guardian, "The chokehold that the Russian Federation has placed on freedom of expression is deeply worrying and needs to be addressed in order to bring about a healthy democracy in Russia."
Madonna opened up about the death threats she received while on tour in Russia as she introduced freed punk stars Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova at an Amnesty International concert on Wednesday (05Feb14). The Material Girl hitmaker has been a staunch supporter of the Pussy Riot members since they were arrested in 2012, and she was on tour in Russia while the rockers stood trial for hooliganism.
Madonna introduced them to the stage at the Bringing Human Rights Home Amnesty International concert at New York City's Barclays Center, and the pop icon revealed she received death threats during her time in the country as a result of her support for the band.
She told the crowd, "I've always considered myself a freedom fighter since the early '80s when I realised I had a voice and I could sing more than songs about being a material girl or feeling like a virgin. And I have definitely paid for and have been punished for speaking my mind and for sticking my neck out for this kind of discrimination. But that's OK."
Russian activists Alekhina and Tolokonnikova relied on a translator as they added, "Freedom is not a given. It is something we have to fight for every day. It is our duty to speak for those who are still behind bars."
The concert featured performances from Blondie's Debbie Harry, who played hit track One Way Or Another, Lauryn Hill, The Flaming Lips and Cold War Kids.
Alekhina and Tolokonnikova were sentenced to two years behind bars in 2012 along with a third band member, Yekaterina Samutsevich, after performing a protest song against Russian President Vladimir Putin in a Moscow church.
Samutsevich's sentence was commuted in October, 2012 and Alekhina and Tolokonnikova were released as part of an amnesty in December (13).
Singer Sinead O'Connor met with former members of Pussy Riot in Ireland on Saturday (01Feb14) when they gave their first TV interview outside of Russia following their release from prison in December (13). Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina chatted with Irish TV host Brendan O'Connor on The Saturday Night Show about their time behind bars for performing a protest song against Russian President Vladimir Putin in a church in Moscow in 2012.
The appearance gave them a chance to come face-to-face with one of their most outspoken celebrity supporters - Nothing Compares 2 U hitmaker O'Connor, who fired off a lengthy letter to Putin calling for the women's release two years ago. She even had the words 'Free Pussy Riot' shaved into her hair.
The pair posed for a picture with O'Connor in the green room at the RTE studios in Dublin, but it is not known whether they had an in-depth chat about Russia's human rights records.
At the time of their arrest, O'Connor told reporters, "People don't see any way out of what's going on economically or politically - not just in Russia but all over the world. But artists have recognised there is a way out and it's that we begin to realise the problem is spiritual, not economical or political.
"These ladies are showing spiritual leadership in times of great crisis and that is the job of true artists."
Tolokonnikova and Alekhina are gearing up to address the crowd at the upcoming Amnesty International concert in New York on Wednesday (05Feb14), where they will be introduced by Madonna.
Newly-freed Pussy Riot stars Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina are to make their first TV appearance outside their native Russia since their December (13) jail release in Ireland. The punks will chat about their 18-month ordeal behind bars and their ongoing opposition to Russian leader Vladimir Putin on The Saturday Night Show this weekend (01Feb14).
Host Brendan O'Connor landed the coup as part of a show about modern Russia and the country's new anti-gay propaganda legislation. Economist Constantin Gurdgiev will also be a guest.
Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were jailed in 2012 after they were found guilty of hooliganism aggravated by religious hatred following a controversial anti-Putin protest in a Moscow cathedral.
Their Irish TV appearance will kickstart a busy February for the rockers - they will also speak at the upcoming Amnesty International concert in New York.
Madonna, who was among the celebrities who vocally challenged the two women's incarceration, has signed up to introduce the pair onstage.
Madonna is set to celebrate the recent release of Russian punk rockers Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova by introducing the pair onstage at the upcoming Amnesty International concert in New York. The pop superstar was among the famous faces who joined human rights activists in calling for Russian authorities to free the Pussy Riot members after they were jailed on hooliganism charges in 2012, and now Madonna will get to meet the young women in person after signing on as a presenter for the 5 February (14) show.
A statement released by the Material Girl reads: "I am honoured to introduce my fellow freedom fighters Masha and Nadya (sic) from Pussy Riot.
"I have admired their courage and have long supported their commitment and the sacrifices they have made in the name of freedom of expression and human rights."
The Bringing Human Rights Home Amnesty International event will also feature performances from the Flaming Lips, Lauryn Hill, Imagine Dragons, Yoko Ono and Bob Geldof.
Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova were granted amnesty in December (13) by Russian President Vladimir Putin. They had been thrown behind bars alongside a third bandmember, Yekaterina Samutsevich, after singing a controversial protest song against the nation's leader at a church in Moscow. Samutsevich's two-year prison sentence was commuted in October, 2012.
Sir Elton John has attacked Russian leader Vladimir Putin for suggesting homosexuality is akin to paedophilia just days after the President saluted the rock star for honouring his commitment to perform in Moscow and Kazan in December (13). Gay rights activists urged Elton to boycott the country in protest to anti-gay propaganda legislation, which was introduced to Russia last year, but he insisted his fans deserved to see him live.
He made little of the nation's new laws during his concerts, simply calling them "inhumane" and "isolating".
But now he has had a chance to take stock of his Russian gigs, he has taken aim at Putin in a fiery new post on his website.
Elton writes, "I met with members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community in Moscow. Although I was still welcomed as an openly gay foreigner, I wanted to really understand at first-hand what difference the legislation had made to Russian LGBT in their own country.
"What I heard reinforced all the media stories that have been circling since the propaganda bill became federal law: that vicious homophobia has been legitimised by this legislation and given extremists the cover to abuse people's basic human rights.
"The people I met in Moscow - gay men and lesbians in their 20s, 30s and 40s - told me stories about receiving threats from vigilante groups who would 'cure' them of homosexuality by dousing them with urine or beating them up. One young man was stalked outside a gay club by someone posing as a taxi driver who tried to garrotte him with a guitar string because he was a 'sodomite'.
"Everyone shared stories of verbal and physical abuse - at work, in bars and restaurants or in the street - since the legislation came into force last June. And some of the vital work providing HIV prevention information to the gay community has been labelled 'homosexual propaganda' and shut down.
"It was very clear to me that, although foreigners like myself who are visiting Russia are not affected by this new law (and President Putin has recently confirmed this), it is a very different story for those living inside the country.
"It is very disappointing that the law explicitly links homosexuality with child sex abuse, which countless studies have shown to be conclusively wrong. The people I met in Moscow were decent, kind, patriotic men and women who had no thought of forcing their sexuality on anyone. Whatever the intention of Russia's homosexuality and paedophilia propaganda laws, I am absolutely clear from my own personal experience that it is proving deeply dangerous to the LGBT community and deeply divisive to Russian society.
"I would welcome the opportunity to introduce President Putin to some Russians who deserve to be heard, and who deserve to be treated in their own country with the same respect and warm welcome that I received on my last visit."
Elton's comments come just days after Putin hailed the gay rocker as an "extraordinary person" and "distinguished musician".
Newly-released Pussy Riot stars Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova have landed their first big gig since their prison spell as speakers at an upcoming Amnesty International concert in New York. The rockers and activists, who were convicted of hooliganism in 2012 and granted amnesty in December (13) by Russian President Vladimir Putin, will make their first trip to the U.S. to appear at the star-studded Bringing Human Rights Home Amnesty International show on 5 February (14).
A statement issued by the pair reads: "A month ago we were freed from Russian prison camps. We will never forget what it's like to be in prison after a political conviction. We have vowed to continue helping those who remain behind bars and we hope to see you all at the Amnesty International concert on February 5th in Brooklyn!"
The concert will feature performances by the Flaming Lips, Imagine Dragons and Lauryn Hill, among others.
Sir Elton John has been hailed as an "extraordinary person" and "distinguished musician" by embattled Russian President Vladimir Putin after the star refused to cancel his gigs in the country amid a backlash over gay rights. The Rocket Man hitmaker performed two concerts in Russia last month (Dec13) despite protests over a controversial law outlawing the promotion of homosexuality to minors.
The singer also urged other stars not to join a boycott of the country as he is convinced it will not help the fight for gay rights there.
Sir Elton has now won praise from the country's president, who voiced his admiration for the star in a new interview with the BBC, insisting Russians embrace the gay singer "regardless of his sexual orientation".
Speaking to the BBC's Andrew Marr Show, Putin says, "We have recently passed a law prohibiting propaganda, and not of homosexuality only, but of homosexuality and child abuse, child sexual abuse. But this is nothing to do with persecuting individuals for their sexual orientation. There's a world of difference between these things... homosexual people can't feel inferior here, because there is no professional, career or social discrimination against them.
"When they achieve great success, for example Elton John - he's an extraordinary person, a distinguished musician, and millions of our people sincerely love him, regardless of his sexual orientation."
Putin goes on to address calls for a boycott of the upcoming Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, which has been backed by stars including Lady Gaga and Lily Allen, adding, "People have different sexual orientation. We will welcome all athletes and all guests of the Olympics."
Members of controversial Russian punk protest group Pussy Riot have been nominated for an arts award in Singapore. Three members of the group hit headlines around the world in 2012 when they were jailed for two years for staging a protest against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The trio is now free from prison and campaigning for improved conditions in Russian jails, and their high-profile human rights struggle has been honoured by organisers of an arts awards ceremony in Singapore.
The group has been nominated in the digital/video category at the Prudential Eye Awards, which are due to be handed out on Saturday (18Jan14).
Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who was freed in December (13), insists the honour helps to highlight the band's campaign and sarcastically suggests Russian leaders should share the award.
She says, "We are talking about our work with media - how to take a single thought and spread it across the world. That is what we did in co-operation with the Russian state... This award is not only for us but for the whole political system that exists in Russia today."
Her bandmate Maria Alekhina adds, "If nothing of what happened to us after that action had happened, there might have never been any nomination. And here we should pay tribute to the Russian state."
Tolokonnikova and Alekhina were freed in December (13). A third Pussy Riot member, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was released in October, 2012 when her sentence was commuted.
"My band ended up playing in the Kremlin. We played in Russia. I've been asked back there a couple of times... (President Vladimir) Putin asked to sit with me. He got so charged up... he actually went up and sang... He got very turned on... and the next time back I went to his house." Kevin Costner on his fondness for Russia.