Pussy Riot members and Arctic 30 protesters set to walk free
Russia passes amnesty law with amendment extending scope to include those arrested on Greenpeace ship
Shaun Walker in Moscow
theguardian.com, Wednesday 18 December 2013 13.21 GMT
Maria Alyokhina (left) and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who could be released as early as
Thursday if the amnesty law is passed. Photograph: Maxim Shipenkov/EPA
The Greenpeace Arctic 30 could be home for Christmas, and the two jailed members of the punk group Pussy Riot will be released from jail as early as Thursday, after a wide-ranging amnesty law was passed by the Russian parliament on Wednesday
. The Pussy Riot pair are serving a two-year jail sentence, while the Greenpeace activists are charged with hooliganism and are currently on bail for trial in St Petersburg.
The amnesty, backed by Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, is timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Russia's constitution, and is being seen as a move to boost Russia's image ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, due to start in less than two months. An amendment to the amnesty law on Wednesday morning extended the amnesty to suspects in cases of hooliganism, which includes the Arctic 30, arrested aboard the Greenpeace ship the Arctic Sunrise in September. The Greenpeace activists expressed relief, though Arctic Sunrise captain Peter Willcox said: "There is no amnesty for the Arctic."
He added: "I might soon be going home to my family, but I should never have been charged and jailed in the first place.
The Duma, Russia's parliament, voted 446-0 in favour of the bill in its third and final reading on Wednesday. The amnesty mainly concerns first-time offenders, minors and women with small children. Once it is signed by Putin and printed in the state newspaper, Rossiiskaya Gazeta, it will then become law.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, of the punk-group Pussy Riot, are serving two-year sentences for staging an impromptu punk performance in Moscow's main cathedral early last year.
Petya Verzilov, Tolokonnikova's husband, said he believed an order had been given to speed up the process. Although technically releases could take up to six months to be processed from the day the law is published, officials at both prisons have indicated they are ready to release the Pussy Riot duo as soon as the law is passed, he said. Verzilov indicated he expected them to be released as soon as Thursday.
Alyokhina is serving her time in a prison in the city of Nizhny Novgorod, while Tokolonnikova was recently moved from Mordovia, a region known for its Soviet-era gulags, to the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. She has said that the conditions are incomparably better than in Mordovia, from where she published a long open letter detailing slave-like conditions of forced labour and cruel punishments.
"They are slightly sceptical of course," Verzilov told the Guardian. "When you're living in these conditions it's hard to think about the Duma passing some bill, and it seems like it could never happen, so it's a big surprise for them that it does actually seem to be happening."
The amnesty will not cover Russia's former richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has been found guilty of economic crimes at two separate trials, neither would it include most of the people on trial for disturbances at a rally the day before Putin was inaugurated last year.
Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, who were both sentenced to two years in jail last summer, were due to be released in early March, as their sentence included time served since their arrest. A third member of the group, Ekaterina Samutsevich, was freed on appeal shortly after the trial concluded.
Verzilov said that on their release, the pair plan to launch a major new project related to the Russian prison system, though he declined to give details for now.