(AP) Russia passes amnesty bill, but still questions
By NATALIYA VASILYEVA
Russia’s parliament on Wednesday passed an amnesty bill that includes the 30-member crew of a Greenpeace ship detained after an Arctic protest, but it wasn’t immediately clear when or if the activists would be allowed to leave the country.
The amnesty, which would also allow the release of members of the Pussy Riot punk band, has been largely viewed as the Kremlin’s attempt to soothe criticism of Russia’s human rights records ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi next year. But opposition lawmakers argued it doesn’t go nearly far enough and the complicated legislation appeared to leave many questions open.
The State Duma on Wednesday voted 446-0 in favor of the carefully tailored bill, which mainly concerns those who haven’t committed violent crimes, first-time offenders, minors and women with small children. Lawmakers said they expect about 2,000 people to be released from jail.
The Duma adopted last-minute final amendments to the bill to include suspects of hooliganism who are still awaiting trial, which means that charges against the people aboard a Greenpeace ship who were detained after a protest in September are likely to be dropped. The bill is also expected to release Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, the jailed members of the Pussy Riot punk band who are serving two years in prison on charges of hooliganism for an irreverent protest at Moscow’s main cathedral.
But it was still unclear on Wednesday whether the Greenpeace crew members could face new charges not covered by the amnesty. They were initially accused of piracy but authorities later changed that charge to hooliganism. The Investigative Committee has insisted the probe into the incident isn’t over yet and that some of the crew members could face additional charges, such as assaulting a law enforcement official.
The amnesty does not cover former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has been widely described as Russia’s main political prisoner, and only eight out of 26 defendants who took part in a 2012 protest rally on the Bolotnaya square in Moscow that ended in scuffles between protesters and riot police.
Opposition lawmaker Dmitry Gudkov said the amnesty bill “has buried all hopes of human rights activists and families of political prisoners that their children and family members will be set free.”
The amnesty will go into effect as soon as the bill is published in the government newspaper, which is expected to happen on Thursday. But it allows prosecutors a six-month period to carry it out, meaning some of the prisoners could in theory wait weeks or months before getting released. Prisoners would apply to prison administration for amnesty, and prosecutors would decide whether they were eligible.
Lawyers and families of the Pussy Riot members insist that everyone eligible for the release ought to be allowed to walk free as soon as the bill is published. The two are now slated to be released in March.
Pyotr Verzilov, Tolokonnikova’s husband, told The Associated Press he believes there is nothing to stop his wife from being released if the bill is published on Thursday.
Greenpeace said in a statement it hopes that the amnesty bill will allow foreign crew members of the Arctic ship to get exit visas and leave Russia. The crew members insist the charges against them were bogus.
Victoria Buravchenko contributed to this report.