Russia approves sweeping amnesty to prisoners

Parliament passes bill that could free thousands of political prisoners and activists, including Pussy Riot members.

Russian lawmakers have approved a Kremlin-backed amnesty bill that could free the two jailed members of the punk band Pussy Riot while also ending the prosecution of 30 Greenpeace crew members.

Russia’s Duma lower house of parliament on Wednesday voted 446-0 for the amnesty, which commemorates 20 years since Russia ratified its current constitution.

The bill, branded as a token gesture by rights activists, could go into effect as early as Thursday and may also see several anti-Vladimir Putin protesters, jailed after a May 2012 rally, walk out of prison.

Al Jazeera’s Peter Sharp, reporting from Moscow, said that the amnesty would affect nearly 26,000 people “from the most vulnerable sectors of society”, as it affects mothers with dependents, minors and the elderly.

“The amnesty, drafted by Vladimir Putin himself, [coinciding] with the 20th anniversary of the Russian constitution, does not mention specific names, but it is expected to come into force tomorrow and last for six months,” Sharp said on Wednesday.

The amnesty does specifically mention the charge of hooliganism as well as the charge of participating in mass riots.

The jailed members of Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, who are serving two-year sentences on charges of hooliganism for staging an anti-Putin “punk prayer” protest in a cathedral, could be released as early as Thursday, Tolokonnikova’s husband, Pyotr Verzilov said.

The officials in Krasnoyarsk and Nizhny Novgorod, where the two women are currently held, have promised to free them “right away and without bureaucratic delay, probably tomorrow”, Verzilov wrote on his Twitter feed.

The duo’s sentences run out in early March of next year.

Greenpeace prosecution

The initial bill listed hooliganism and mass riot charges, but said that only convicts can seek amnesty. The parliament then passed amendments stipulating that cases on those charges be closed even before reaching trial or verdict.

The amendments effectively meant that prosecution of the entire Greenpeace crew arrested after a protest in the Barents Sea and charged with hooliganism would end and the foreigners now staying in St Petersburg could finally go home.

The amnesty does not require approval by the upper chamber of parliament and will go into effect when it is published.

The 26 foreign crew from the Greenpeace Arctic Sunrise ship will then request to leave, and still hope to be home by Christmas, said spokesman Ben Stewart.

Last month the entire crew was released on bail, but Greenpeace said the foreigners are still not being allowed out of the country, with Russian investigators not giving migration officials a green light to issue exit visas.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies

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