Arctic 30 Protesters and Pussy Riot Members Set to Walk Free

Russia passes amnesty law with amendment extending scope to include those arrested on Greenpeace ship.

Photo Credit: Vinokurov

This piece originally appeared in the Guardian, and is reprinted here with their permission.

The Greenpeace Arctic 30 could be home for Christmas, and the two jailed members of the punk group Pussy Riot will be released 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 on bail in St Petersburg.

The amnesty, backed by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Russia's constitution, and is being seen as a move to boost the country's image ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, which are due to start in less than two months.

An amendment to the amnesty law passed on Wednesday extended the pardon to suspects in cases of hooliganism, which includes the 30 people arrested on board the Greenpeace ship the Arctic Sunrise in September. The activists expressed relief, though ship's 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."

Greenpeace says it is unclear when the non-Russians among the Arctic 30 will be able to leave the country. "At present they do not have the correct stamps in their passports, having been brought to Russia by commandos after being illegally seized in international waters. By accepting the amnesty they will not be admitting guilt, but the legal proceedings against them will come to an end," the organisation said.

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, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, it will then become law.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, of Pussy Riot, were jailed for two years for staging an impromptu punk performance in Moscow's main cathedral 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, prison officials have indicated they are ready to release the Pussy Riot duo as soon as the law is passed, he said. Verzilov suggested that they could be released on Thursday.

Alyokhina is serving her time in a prison in the city of Nizhny Novgorod, while Tolokonnikova was recently moved from Mordovia, a region known for its Soviet-era gulags, to the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. Tolokonnikova has said that the conditions are incomparably better than in Mordovia, from where she published a long open letterdetailing slave-like conditions of forced labour and cruel punishments.

"They [Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina] 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 will the law include most of the people on trial for disturbances at a rally the day before Putin's inauguration last year.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky reads documents behind a glass wall during a court session in Moscow in June 2010. Photograph: Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were due to be released in early March, as their sentence included time served since their arrest. A third member of the group, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was freed on appeal shortly after the trial concluded.

Verzilov said that on their release, his wife and Alyokhina plan to launch a major new project related to the Russian prison system, though he declined to give details for now.

Sue Turner, mother of Iain Rogers, one of six British nationals among the Arctic 30: "Until I have heard it officially, I can't quite believe it. I am waiting to know whether they have to wait for exit visas or if they are put on a plane straight away. I am so excited, I just can't take it in. It is a great Christmas present for me and the family and all Iain's friends."

Keiron Bryan, a freelance video producer and editor, who was on the ship when it was seized, tweeted: "It doesn't seem real. Merry Christmas everyone, this will be my best ever wherever I am!"

Greenpeace communications officer Alexandra Harris, tweeted: "TBH, I'm feeling strange. A lot of relief to be going home, though we don't know when. It's a bit emotional, what a journey! Weird to be writing my first tweet in 3 months. Thoughts are with my 4 Russian friends for whom the amnesty brings uncertainty.

"It's strange that we are being forgiven for a crime we didn't commit, and I keep thinking about my Russian friends. I always imagined we'd all be together in this moment and let go under the same circumstances. We've been a group this whole time and I thought we would be sharing this moment—but the amnesty doesn't mean the same for all of us."

Shaun Walker is Moscow Correspondent of the Guardian.

James Meikle is a special correspondent for the Guardian.

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