By Julia Ioffe
Thursday, July 15, 2010; A08
MOSCOW -- At midnight last Thursday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree pardoning four Russians jailed for years because of their contacts with the West. The group was swiftly flown to Vienna and exchanged for 10 spies arrested in the United States just days earlier.
In far less dramatic fashion, and with none of the Cold War intrigue, Medvedev also pardoned 16 other people that night, most of them obscure petty criminals or corrupt local officials.
One was the director of a machine-tool plant who was removed from his post in May for failing to pay his employees. Another was a 25-year-old doing time for theft. Another was the deputy head of a committee overseeing local federal property who received six years of probation on July 8, 2004, for fraud and abuse of power -- a sentence that ran out just as Medvedev signed his pardon.
This group had little in common with the Russian intelligence officers accused of selling state secrets to the CIA, and that might have been the point. Pardoning the seemingly random convicts along with the higher-profile group seemed to be an important tactical maneuver by the Kremlin to play down the spy incident and deflect accusations that the law was being applied selectively.
"This was the president showing that he is ready to pardon not only under extraordinary circumstances but is also willing to exercise his constitutional power," said Alexey Makarkin, a political analyst with the Center for Political Technologies. "It was designed to show that any Russian can count on this option, not just a person for whom the U.S. asks."
More complex cases were also in the mix, but none had anything to do with espionage. Sergey Ananyev of Smolensk, for instance, was hastily sentenced in 2003 to 15 years in jail for murder. He maintained his innocence after a trial that he was not allowed to attend. Last July, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in Ananyev's favor and awarded him 2,000 euros.
Then there is the case of Ivan Vinogradov, a former paratrooper who was held in Butyrka, one of Moscow's most notorious prisons, for shooting a police officer who wouldn't accept a $2,000 bribe.
One day in October 2001, when his mother came to visit, Vinogradov approached a guard at the entrance to the visitors' room, handed him a false ID and, wishing him a good day, walked out. He was caught three months later after a shootout with police and a foiled suicide attempt.
"They combined the cases in order to demonstrate that this is a normal pardon," said Sergei Markov, a member of the lower house who chairs the parliament's council on global politics. "They didn't want to make this into a special case."
According to Article 71 of the Russian constitution, the president has the power to grant pardons to citizens who appeal to him for clemency. During Boris Yeltsin's presidency, a panel of rights activists and independent lawyers recommended cases for pardons or commutation of death sentences (Russia now has a moratorium on the death penalty). By the time he stepped down in 1999, Yeltsin had pardoned about 50,000 people.
Vladimir Putin, Yeltsin's successor, briefly continued the practice but disbanded the panel in 2001 to stanch the torrent of pardons.
Today, pardons are granted to prisoners who have admitted guilt, served most of their sentence, exhibited good behavior or are somehow exceptional -- a mother of many children, say, or a veteran (such as Vinogradov, who served in Afghanistan).
The prisoners appeal to the president through a regional committee, which passes its candidates for clemency up to the Kremlin. There, presidential advisers examine the materials and make nonbinding recommendations to the president.
"This is done on a regular basis," said Lev Ponomaryov, a human rights activist with the Moscow Helsinki Group. "It is a necessary and important practice."
Ioffe is a special correspondent.