Russian Parliament Approves Amnesty Bill

Members of the punk band Pussy Riot and a crew of Greenpeace environmentalists could walk free soonl. The amnesty is being granted to mark the 20th anniversary of Russia's constitution, but it also seems to be an effort to buff up the country's human-rights image before the Winter Olympics in February.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his big, annual press conference this morning, and he had a lot to say. He praised the U.S.-led, temporary nuclear deal with Iran, but he warned that recent American steps to tighten sanctions against that country were counterproductive. And as he headed out, he dropped what counts as a bombshell is Russian circles, saying he'll soon pardon jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who's been behind bars for 10 years. Critics have heaped scorn on Russia, saying Khodorkovsky was jailed for his views and for being a political threat to Putin.

Now, Putin's surprise remarks come as Russia's Parliament is approving amnesty for thousands of people in prison or facing charges, and that includes members of the rock bank Pussy Riot and also Greenpeace activists who protested drilling in the Arctic Circle. All this comes just as Russia prepares to host the Winter Olympics.

We spoke earlier to NPR's Corey Flintoff about the amnesty decision.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: It's basically a sort of "get out of jail free" card for as many as 2,000 people who are in prison right now. They're mainly nonviolent offenders, disabled people, people who committed crimes when they were minors, and mothers of small children. And it happens that the two Pussy Riot band members who are in jail - Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova - are both mothers of small children, so they should qualify.

At the last minute, language was added to the bill that would apply to about 30 people who were arrested aboard the Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise, during that protest in the Russian Arctic back in September. They've been out of jail awaiting trial, and possibly facing years in prison.

We should keep in mind that none of this is guaranteed, because nobody is mentioned by name in the law. But critics have pointed out that it's very narrowly written, so it will only apply to some people and exclude a whole lot of others.

GREENE: And Corey, we actually spoke to Pete Wilcox, the American captain of that Greenpeace vessel, on the program recently. I mean, he was talking about getting his family visas in case he had to be in Russia for Christmas. I mean, when is the news going to come that these people can officially go home?

FLINTOFF: It could come as early as tomorrow. The law goes into effect once it's been published in a government newspaper. But prisoners who think that they're eligible have to apply to the prison authorities, and then they have six months to decide whether to free them.

Pete Wilcox issued a statement just recently, saying that he might be going home to his family but adding that he should never have been jailed in the first place. You'll remember that these people were originally accused of piracy, and they spent about two months in some pretty bleak jail cells before they were bailed out.

GREENE: Yeah, the Greenpeace activists accused of piracy, and then members of Pussy Riot - I mean, their arrests caused an outrage because they were arrested for staging anti-government performances; and throwing them in jail for that angered a lot of people around the world. And might this be a way for Russia to sort of calm things down and improve its image as the Olympics are coming?

FLINTOFF: Well, that's what at least some analysts are saying. And the Pussy Riot case would be a good example because the two jailed band members are scheduled to get out of prison in early March anyway. So this amnesty won't shorten their jail time by very much.

What the Kremlin may be hoping is that this will remove their case as an issue during the Winter Games, so commentators won't be constantly referring to them as the band members still in prison whenever they talk about human rights.

GREENE: We should say, Corey - I mean, even if a couple thousand people get out of prison, there are some very high-profile people who will remain in prison in Russia.

FLINTOFF: Exactly. The amnesty law only applies to one-time offenders. It won't apply to the opposition leader Alexei Navalny. He was convicted this fall in a fraud case that many rights groups say was politically motivated. He wasn't sent to prison but as a convicted felon, he's not eligible to run for political office, so that keeps him on the sidelines for now.

GREENE: Corey, thanks a lot for talking to us this morning.

FLINTOFF: It's my pleasure, David.

GREENE: That's NPR's Corey Flintoff, who joined us from Moscow.

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