Russian Amnesty Likely To Free Greenpeace Activists, Pussy Riot Members

Russia's parliament has passed a measure that could grant amnesty to thousands of people in prison or under investigation in the justice system. The amnesty could mean freedom for some people arrested during anti-government protests, such as members of the punk band Pussy Riot and the crew of the Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise, but critics say it's really notable for the prisoners who would not be freed. They also say it's another example of how justice in Russia is subverted to the will of one man, rather than independent institutions.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Audie Cornish. We begin this hour with a surprise announcement out of Russia. With the Sochi Olympics fast approaching, Russian President Vladimir Putin promised amnesty for up to 2,000 prisoners. He said he would pardon a crew of Greenpeace environmentalists as well as two members of the dissident punk band Pussy Riot.

As NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Moscow, Putin also vowed to free one of his sharpest critics - a jailed oil tycoon who was once the country's richest man.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: The biggest shock from Putin's four-hour-long press conference came just after it was over and he was leaving the hall.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking foreign language)

FLINTOFF: He told a reporter that he will soon pardon Mikhail Khordorkovsky, the former head of the Russian oil giant Yukos Oil. Khordorkovsky has been in jail for the past 10 years on fraud and theft charges. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International regard him as a political prisoner, saying he was prosecuted because he challenged Putin's power.

Putin said that he was granting the pardon in response to an appeal from Khordorkovsky, but the tycoon's lawyer said that he never made any such appeal. Khordorkovsky only has about eight months left to serve on his current term. Putin also spoke today about the amnesty law that on his instructions, was just enacted by Parliament.

PUTIN: (Speaking foreign language)

FLINTOFF: He confirmed that amnesty will be granted to the two members of the Pussy Riot punk band who remain in prison, and to 30 people arrested in a Greenpeace protest in September. But Putin said the amnesty was not designed with Greenpeace in mind. The amnesty could free as many as 2,000 people from prison, and end the prosecutions of many others whose cases are still pending.

But critics say the plan won't help many prisoners who don't belong in jail, and that it will free some who do. This is Svetlana Gannushkina, head of the human rights group Civic Assistance.

SVETLANA GANNUSHKINA: (Through interpreter) It also applies to those people in law enforcement who used torture, inflicted bodily harm or damaged people's health.

FLINTOFF: Some critics see the pardon and the amnesties as a way to burnish Putin's human rights image before the Winter Olympics in Sochi, in February. The thinking goes that commentators on human rights will have less to talk about during the games if some of the most high-profile prisoners are out of jail. Masha Lipman, an editor and analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, says the way these decisions were made shows that Russians can't rely on justice from their institutions.

MASHA LIPMAN: Mercy is maybe complementary to justice, but mercy cannot replace justice. And this only emphasizes the fact that in Russia, if you fall victim to injustice and unfair treatment, it can only be the will from above that can rescue you.

FLINTOFF: In other words, pardons and amnesties may be the signs of a ruler's mercy that are superseding the law in Putin's Russia.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.

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