Russian lawmakers approve amnesty that could affect Pussy Riot, Greenpeace activists

NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images - Maria Alyokhina, left, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova sit in court in Moscow in October 2012.

MOSCOW — Lawmakers in Russia have approved a prison amnesty clearing the way for the early release of the two jailed members of Pussy Riot, attorneys for the controversial punk band said Wednesday.

Thirty Greenpeace activists awaiting trial for staging a protest at an oil rig in the Russian Arctic also are in line for pardons after last-minute amendments to the amnesty bill, which President Vladimir Putin proposed last week.

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At twin hearings Wednesday, Russia’s lower house of parliament rushed through the final approvals of the legislation, which will come into force after Putin signs it.

The amnesty, timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Russian constitution, is intended to show the Kremlin’s humane side and promote reform of the country’s draconian penitentiary system, rights activists said.

Russian opposition groups have criticized the bill as a cynical gesture designed to disarm foreign critics of Putin’s hard-line policies before Russia hosts the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, who were handed two-year jail terms last year after they performed a raucous anti-Putin song in a Moscow cathedral, fall within the scope of the amnesty, Irina Khanova, an attorney for Pussy Riot, told Russian news agencies Wednesday.

“Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina may be freed before New Year’s, as soon as the penal colony’s governor prints the decree declaring them released from custody,” she said.

A late amendment adding hooliganism to the list of crimes covered by the amnesty is expected to secure a pardon for the 30 Greenpeace activists arrested by the Russian coast guard in September during a protest at an oil rig in the Pechora Sea.

The group, known as the “Arctic 30,” spent two months in pretrial detention before being released on bail last month.

Greenpeace issued a statement Wednesday saying the amnesty would allow the pardon of the Arctic 30, but it pledged to continue the campaign to halt potentially hazardous oil operations in the world’s pristine frozen seas.

Anton Beneslavsky, an attorney for Greenpeace, warned that the amnesty process could take time.

“We dare to hope that the issues will be resolved this year, and it is desirable to send the activists home for New Year’s,” he told the Interfax news agency. “But for now, we do not know how all the procedures, including with visas, will be settled.”

Separate amendments to the amnesty bill could spell reprieve for some of the 27 Russians — including 12 on trial — who have been charged with participating in mass riots that erupted at an anti-government rally on the eve of Putin’s inauguration to a third term as president last year.

Critics of the case say the charges, which could carry prison sentences of up to 13 years, have been fabricated by law-enforcement officials to stifle the protest movement.

Maria Arkhipova, a member of the May 6 Committee, a citizens group founded to support the detainees, said that the amnesty was an opportunity for the Russian authorities to “correct their mistakes” but that it was premature to discuss the possibility of a pardon. “It’s a very cruel game,” she said.

Human rights groups that advised the Kremlin on the amnesty voiced disappointment at the limited scope of the final version.

For the most part, the amnesty will cover vulnerable groups, such as pregnant women, mothers, the disabled and the elderly serving sentences of up to five years. Prisoners guilty of grave crimes, terrorism or assaulting police are not eligible for pardon.

As it stands, the amnesty is expected to cover about 2,000 convicts, less than 2 percent of Russia’s prison population, said Valentin Gefter, director of the Institute of Human Rights. “It’s very narrow and decorative in character,” he said.

In planning the amnesty, the authorities had to balance two competing goals: placating critics who consider Russia’s penitentiary system too harsh and mollifying the overwhelming majority of the population that advocates tough punishments for crime and regrets the abolition of the death penalty.

“We have to be grateful that some 2,000 prisoners will be freed,” Gefter said. “In some countries, amnesties are very rare or never happen at all.”

 
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