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Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, jailed Pussy Riot member, halts hunger strike

From Phil Black, CNN
October 3, 2013 -- Updated 2131 GMT (0531 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tolokonnikova began her hunger strike to protest prison conditions
  • Her condition deteriorated, and she was hospitalized last week
  • She has suspended the hunger strike, her husband says
  • But she will resume it if conditions at the penal colony don't improve

Mordovia, Russia (CNN) -- It takes a seven-hour drive east from Moscow to get to the prison camps of Mordovia.

Convicted criminals fear the place. It is grim, decaying and intimidating.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a member of the Russian punk rock collective Pussy Riot, was sent to Mordovia last year for her part in a performance of a "punk prayer" critical of Vladimir Putin -- then the prime minister, now the president -- at a Russian Orthodox cathedral.

Found guilty of hooliganism, Tolokonnikova, 23, was sentenced to two years in the penal colony.

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She has less than six months left on her sentence. But on September 23, she declared the conditions at the prison to be intolerable and began a hunger strike.

'Slave labor'

In a lengthy letter to the news site Lenta (a translated version was published in London's The Guardian), Tolokonnikova described "slave labor" and unsanitary conditions in which women work through sickness and injury up to 17 hours a day and are beaten -- or worse -- for failing to complete their duties.

After several days without water, she became so weak that doctors ordered that she be placed in the penal colony's medical ward on Friday.

Four days later, she ended the hunger strike, said Pyotr Verzilov, her husband.

But Tolokonnikova will resume her protest if conditions at the prison camp don't improve, he said.

She had started developing complications because of the length of the hunger strike, Verzilov said.

Prison authorities have denied Tolokonnikova's allegations about the situation at the penal colony, accusing her of lying.

A similar experience

But Svetlana Bakhmina believes every word because she says she lived through a similar experience.

Bakhmina was convicted of embezzlement and served three years in a Mordovia prison camp.

"It's like torture," she said. "The system between the administration and the convicts is not just based on subordination, but humiliation, fear, intimidation and physical force."

Bakhmina said she also went on a hunger strike after authorities said she could no longer phone her children.

She said the psychological pressure applied to make her quit was harder than the hunger.

Maria Alyokhina, another convicted member of Pussy Riot, went on a hunger strike earlier this year, protesting conditions in a different remote prison camp.

She drew attention and won concessions.

Tolokonnikova is waiting to discover if she has done the same.

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