Putin submitted his proposal last week for the amnesty to mark the
20th anniversary of Russia's post-Soviet constitution, after long
debate about how many it would free and whether it would apply to
inmates his critics call political prisoners.
Rights activists say will free only a small fraction of the
country's more than half a million inmates.
The proposal would leave Putin foes such as former oil tycoon
Mikhail Khodorkovsky in jail and will not benefit Alexei Navalny, an
opposition leader serving a five-year suspended sentence on a theft
conviction he says is politically motivated.
Approved in a initial vote by the lower house of parliament, it
could, however, lead to the early release of two Pussy Riot members
who are due to be freed in March after two years in jail for an
anti-Putin protest in Russia's main cathedral.
Analysts say the Kremlin may believe freeing prisoners such as
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, whose punishment has
been condemned in the West as excessive, could ease criticism before
Russia hosts the Winter Olympics in February.
Environmental group Greenpeace has said that under the current
wording, the amnesty would be unlikely to benefit 30 people from 18
nations who face trial over a September protest against Russian oil
drilling in the Arctic.
But Russian media reported that before a
final vote expected by the pro-Kremlin dominated Duma on Wednesday,
the text could be changed in a way that would end their prosecution,
which has also drawn criticism from the West.
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Even if they are freed, rights activists estimate the amnesty will
lead to the release of fewer than 1,500 convicts out of a prison
population of about 680,000 — far fewer than a plan backed by
members of Putin's own human rights council.
Out of some 30 people on trial or facing prosecution over a protest
on the eve of Putin's inauguration to a third presidential term last
year, it is likely to benefit only those few who are not accused of
violence against police.
"This amnesty is not as broad as it may seem. The draft would not
apply to ... someone who tore a button off a policeman's uniform or
shoved him," said Communist lawmaker Yuri Sidelnikov. "That is far
from the principle of mercy."
Putin, who critics accuse of curbing democracy over 14 years in
power and clamping down on dissent during his third presidential
term, denies such accusations and said last month that the amnesty
should "underscore the humanism of our state".
It would free many elderly and very young inmates, as well as women
with young children.
(Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova;
editing by Alison
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