Questions over Greenpeace amnesty
Russia's parliament has passed an amnesty bill that will probably apply to the 30 crew of the Greenpeace ship detained after an Arctic protest, but it was still not clear if and when they would be allowed to leave the country.
The amnesty, which also could free the two jailed members of the Pussy Riot punk band, has been largely viewed as the Kremlin's attempt to soothe criticism of Russia's human rights records ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi next year. But opposition politicians argued it does not go far enough and the complicated legislation appeared to leave many questions open.
The State Duma voted 446-0 in favour of the carefully tailored bill, which mostly applies to those who have not committed violent crimes, first-time offenders, minors and women with small children; around 2,000 people currently in jail.
The Duma adopted last-minute amendments to the bill to include suspects of hooliganism who are still awaiting trial, a provision that could apply to the crew of the Greenpeace ship.
The nation's top investigative agency has said, however, that the probe into the incident is not over yet and that some of the crew could face additional charges, such as assaulting a law enforcement official.
Greenpeace said it hoped that the bill will allow the crew to get exit visas and leave Russia.
"The Arctic 30 now hope they can spend Christmas at home," said a Greenpeace spokesman. "But it is too early to say."
The crew members insist the charges against them were bogus. "I might soon be going home to my family, but I should never have been charged and jailed in the first place," the ship's captain Peter Willcox said.
The bill is also expected to release Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, the jailed members of the Pussy Riot punk band serving two years in prison on charges of hooliganism for an irreverent anti-Kremlin protest at Moscow's main cathedral. They both have small children.
However, the legislation does not contain names, and there has been no official confirmation they will be released.
The amnesty does not cover former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has been widely described as Russia's top political prisoner, and only eight out of 26 defendants who took part in a 2012 protest rally on the Bolotnaya square in Moscow that ended in scuffles between protesters and riot police.
The amnesty will go into effect as soon as the bill is published in the government newspaper, which is expected to happen on Thursday. But it allows authorities a six-month period to carry it out, meaning some of the prisoners could in theory wait weeks or months before getting released. Prisoners would apply to prison administration for amnesty, and officials would decide whether they were eligible. Any who committed disciplinary offences behind bars could be denied amnesty.