Russia’s state Duma has unanimously agreed to a new ‘amnesty’ law which proposed by president Vladimir Putin to mark the 20th anniversary of Russia’s post-Soviet constitution. The amnesty bill looks to free prisoners who have been jailed for certain non-violent crimes, women with dependent children, juveniles, veterans, invalids and first time offenders and is likely to include the 30 Greenpeace crew and journalists from the Arctic Sunrise, currently on bail on charges of hooliganism in Russia after boarding a drilling rig. The bill specifically included the charge of hooliganism, which was used to prosecute 28 Greenpeace activists and two journalists, among them six Britons, over a protest at Russia’s first offshore oil platform in the Arctic. The 30 will still need exit visas to leave Russia. Others who may be freed include some, but not all, of the political protesters arrested during clashes with police after Vladimir Putin’s inauguration as Russian president for a third term last year.
The ruling prompted the release of the two members of Pussy Riot, jailed for religious hooliganism. Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were each sentenced to two years in prison after the band staged a provocative performance that criticised the Russian government and Vladimir Putin in a Moscow cathedral in August 2012. The sentence was recently criticised by Russia’s Supreme Court although only three months of the sentence remains to be served. The court said that the prosecution in their case had failed to demonstrate that the three musicians charged were motivated by hatred towards one specific group, which is required in cases of this kind (see our separate update on this topic).
The law is being seen as an attempt to ease Western concerns about Russia’s human rights record, with the Winter Olympics in Sochi coming up early next year. But critics point out that it does not change the underlying system, which allows for the jailing of protesters in the first place. Indeed Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were unbowed, and they immediately seized on their sudden freedom to slam Mr. Putin, accusing him of using the Russian justice system to bolster his image before the Winter Olympics and insisting they did not want his mercy
Ruling party MPs said the amnesty would free up to 3,500 people in all. It is expected to could go into effect as soon as the bill is published in the government gazette today, but the wording allows prosecutors a six-month enactment period, meaning some of the prisoners could in theory wait weeks or months before being released. Russia’s most famous prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil tycoon, who was released from a penal colony in northern Russia and flown to Berlin.