Could Russia introduce a sweeping amnesty for prisoners?

An opposition leader is calling for a mass release of detainees to mark the 1917 centenary

Russian opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov. Hundreds of thousands of people are rotting in Russian jails for petty crimes or are simply victims of the miscarriage of justice, he said. Photograph: Stanislav Krasilnikovass via Getty Images

Russian opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov. Hundreds of thousands of people are rotting in Russian jails for petty crimes or are simply victims of the miscarriage of justice, he said. Photograph: Stanislav Krasilnikovass via Getty Images

 

Opposition leaders in Vladimir Putin’s Russia have learnt to their cost that arbitrary arrest and even jail sentences are an occupational hazard and the price they pay for their political activities.

Sergei Udaltsov, co-ordinator of the Left Front movement, has decided to put his experience of prison life to use and champion the cause for reform of Russia’s draconian criminal justice system.

One month after completing a 4½-year prison term for organising a mass anti-government rally in 2012, Russia’s most prominent left-wing politician called this week for a sweeping prison amnesty to mark the centenary of the 1917 Russian revolution.

Hundreds of thousands of people are rotting in Russian jails for petty crimes or are simply victims of the miscarriage of justice, Udaltsov told a press conference at the Rosbalt news agency in Moscow on Tuesday.

“I saw it with my own eyes. They pose no danger to society.” he said. “Prison is destructive for them and their families. Their isolation is unnecessary. ”

After his release from jail in August, Udaltsov leapt back into the political fray and is working to unite the splintered left flank of the opposition and put forward a credible candidate to challenge Putin in next year’s presidential election.

In a parallel humanitarian endeavour, he has teamed up with a group of like-minded politicians, human rights and opposition activists in the “For a Broad Amnesty” campaign to free huge numbers of prisoners in time for the centenary of the Russian revolution on November 7th.

Broad amnesty

The Russian authorities have used the anniversary of the revolution to “talk about the consolidation of society, the reconciliation of everyone with everyone and about national unity”, Udaltsov told The Irish Times. “The announcement of a broad amnesty in November 2017 is essential in this context.”

Prisoners convicted of violent crimes, drug dealing or paedophilia would not be included in the amnesty. But petty criminals serving the final year of their sentences should all be considered for early release.

Russia has the highest per capita prison rates in the world after the US and China, with 581 people held in jail for every 100,000 members of the population, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies.

At least 250,000 prisoners – 40 per cent of the total prison population – had been convicted of minor crimes and could be released without posing any danger to society, said Andrey Babushkin, a Russian human rights activist. However, such a large-scale amnesty would have to be conducted in phases with use of the probation system, he added.

Crime

Russia’s high prison rates reflect widespread poverty that drives people to commit crime. More than 19.8 million people, or 13 per cent of the population, are living below the bread line, according to official statistics.

“There’s a catastrophic lack of mercy and kindness” in the criminal justice system, with courts delivering guilty verdicts in the overwhelming majority of cases and rarely considering non-custodial sentences, said Sergei Shargunov, a Communist Party deputy in the Russian Duma, or parliament, who is backing the amnesty campaign.

“I receive hundreds of letters each month from sad relatives telling how a single parent has been jailed for stealing chocolate for the children or a hungry pensioner for pilfering food from a shop.”

Repressive legislation introduced after the street protests of 2011-2012 – including a tightening of the notorious Article 208 anti-extremism law – had increased the scope for courts to jail dissidents, swelling the ranks of political prisoners, said Shargunov. “Article 208 should be lifted. It’s only purpose is to punish non-conformist thinking.”

Overcrowding

Russia has improved conditions in prisons since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but detention facilities are still plagued by overcrowding, violence and corruption, said Babushkin. Weak public oversight allows prison officers to mistreat inmates and engage in extortion rackets without fear of being called to account.

Kicking off the amnesty campaign, Udaltsov staged a picket outside the Duma in Moscow on Wednesday, handing petitions to parliamentary deputies as they returned from holiday for the autumn session.

One-man pickets are allowed under Russian law, but police weren’t taking any chances. Within half an hour of launching the action the politician was ushered into a police car and taken away for questioning. He was released later in the day.

For a Broad Amnesty plans to apply to the Moscow authorities for permission to organise a demonstration to publicise the campaign in the next few weeks.

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