Russian amnesty to benefit Pussy Riot, Greenpeace 30
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's parliament on Wednesday adopted an amnesty which lawyers said would free two jailed members of punk band Pussy Riot and enable 30 people arrested in a Greenpeace protest against Arctic oil drilling to avoid trial.
Such an outcome would remove two of many irritants in ties with the West before Russia hosts the Winter Olympics in February. Concern over Russia's treatment of gays is already threatening to cloud the atmosphere at the Sochi Games.
The State Duma, or lower house, unanimously approved the amnesty proposed by President Vladimir Putin to mark the 20th anniversary of the passage of Russia's post-Soviet constitution.
Human rights activists say the amnesty is far too narrow, freeing only a tiny fraction of Russia's more than half a million prisoners.
It will not benefit prominent Putin foes such as jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky or opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who will be kept out of elections for years by a theft conviction he says was politically motivated.
But lawyers said it would lead to the early release of Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, whose two-year sentences over an anti-Putin protest in a Moscow cathedral have been criticized in the West as excessive.
Greenpeace said an amendment added hours before the vote would almost certainly end legal proceedings against 30 people who faced jail terms of up to seven years over a protest at an Arctic offshore oil platform in September, allowing the 26 foreigners among them, from 17 countries, to go home.
"We have good news," Greenpeace Russia said on Twitter. "The Duma has voted to grant amnesty to the Greenpeace activists."
The arrest of the men and women, dubbed the "Arctic 30", also drew Western criticism and was widely seen as a signal that Putin will not tolerate efforts to stop Russia's development of the resource-rich region where nations are vying for clout.
A lawyer for Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, whose prison terms end in March, said she hoped they would walk free within days.
"It's a very narrow amnesty. I'm very glad it applies to my clients," lawyer Irina Khrunova said by telephone.
The amnesty will take effect when it is published in the official government gazette, which is expected on Thursday.
The "Arctic 30" were arrested after Russian coast guards boarded the Greenpeace icebreaker Arctic Sunrise following a September 18 protest in which some of the activists tried to scale Russia's first offshore oil platform in the Arctic.
They were charged with hooliganism, jailed in stark conditions for two months and have been unable to leave Russia since their release on bail.
"I might soon be going home to my family, but I should never have been charged and jailed in the first place," Greenpeace quoted Arctic Sunrise's U.S. captain Peter Willcox as saying.
"We sailed north to bear witness to a profound environmental threat but our ship was stormed by masked men wielding knives and guns ... We were never the criminals here."
A Greenpeace lawyer said it was unclear whether the foreigners, who do not have visas, could leave Russia by January 1.
Putin, accused by his critics of curbing democracy during 14 years in power and stifling dissent in his third presidential term, said last month the amnesty should "underscore the humanism of our state".
It would release many elderly and young people, women with young children and people with disabilities.
But members of Putin's own human rights council estimate it will free fewer than 1,500 convicts. Almost all Russian trials end in convictions and the prison population is nearly 700,000.
Critics also say it could lead to the release of some police, soldiers and government bureaucrats charged with crimes, but will leave in jail people accused of violence against police, including protesters at a anti-Putin rally last year.
(Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova, Editing by Timothy Heritage and Alistair Lyon)