Russian amnesty law is no substitute for genuine legal reform

By Ruth Green

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Although Russian Orthodox Christmas was still over two weeks away, the news that the country’s parliament had passed a wide-ranging amnesty bill on 18 December must have had many prisoners thinking Christmas had come early.

The law, which has already prompted the release of the Greenpeace Arctic 30 and members of punk band Pussy Riot, coincides with celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the country’s constitution, which proclaims the rule of law and guarantees fundamental human rights to Russian people. 

Mikhail Khodorkovsky (right)

Since the amnesty law mainly applies to first-time offenders, minors and women with young children, the greatest shock came when it was announced that Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had already spent just over a decade behind bars for convictions of tax evasion, fraud, embezzlement and money laundering, was also due to be released.

With mounting criticism of the crackdown on protests in the country, particularly in the run-up to the Winter Olympics, this development has left many questioning the motive of the amnesty law and what significance it may hold for the rule of law in Russia today.

Baroness Helena Kennedy

‘I don't think Putin has suddenly understood the import of human rights safeguards and the freedoms people must have in a democracy, but he wants to have a successful world event to showcase Russia,’ comments Baroness Helen Kennedy QC, Co-Chair of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI).

Hans Corell, Vice-Chair of IBAHRI, former Judge of Appeal and former Legal Counsel of the UN, stresses the need to look at how those who have received the amnesties have been treated by the justice system in the past.


  ‘The politicisation of justice in Russia is not a new phenomenon: Khodorkovsky's trials, and his amnesty, have become the symbol of the politicisation of Russian justice system in 2003'

Jana Kobzova
Associate policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations

‘Unfortunately the progress in developing a system under the rule of law in the present Russian Federation has been very slow,’ he says. ‘Some suggest that this process has even been backsliding. Amnesties can certainly be positive…[but]…against this background the release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and members of Pussy Riot says very little about Russia’s justice system and the rule of law in Russia today. There is great need for improvement in this respect.’

Although on the face of it the amnesty law appears to be a positive step for the Russian justice system and for the rule of law, many are sceptical, particularly in relation to Khodorkovsky’s release. Despite not falling under the conditions of the amnesty law, the businessman was reportedly released on humanitarian grounds after appealing to President Vladimir Putin for a pardon. Although Khodorkovsky has since confirmed this, he has denied accusations that this confirms his guilt.

For many, the dramatic events surrounding Khodorkovsky’s release are symptomatic of a trial that has exposed the very worst of the Russian judicial system. ‘The politicisation of justice in Russia is not a new phenomenon: Khodorkovsky's trials, and his amnesty, have become the symbol of the politicisation of the Russian justice system in 2003,’ remarks Jana Kobzova, associate policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.


‘A broad amnesty like this one is not a substitute for effective safeguards in the criminal justice system, nor is it evidence that prosecutions going forward will be any more legitimate'

Rebecca Shaeffer
Law reform officer at Fair Trials International

Rebecca Shaeffer, law reform officer at Fair Trials International, adds that the law has been a convenient way for the Russian government to deal with some of its legal system’s more controversial cases. ‘The amnesty law has been used by Russia to make several high-profile cases go away, such as that of Anastasia Rybachenko – who was pursued by the Russian authorities following her involvement in the Bolotnaya Square protest.’

‘It is notable, however, that while some of the accused in that case have been pardoned, the European Court of Human Rights is still looking carefully at alleged violations in the pre-trial detention of many of the other suspects,’ says Shaeffer.

Hans Corell

Although Corell agrees that governments can have a strong influence on the rule of law, he believes that objectivity is the key when it comes to winning public confidence in the country’s justice system. ‘The rule of law requires that not only the judiciary and the courts, but also all who exercise power in the public domain, act with similar objectivity and that they demonstrate the necessary integrity to command respect among the general public. This applies in particular to politicians, whether they act as head of state, members of government or members of the legislative assembly of a state.’

As for what happens next, it is clear that the existing bill will not be a quick fix for the rule of law in Russia. ‘A broad amnesty like this one is not a substitute for effective safeguards in the criminal justice system, nor is it evidence that prosecutions going forward will be any more legitimate,’ admits Schaeffer.

‘It is the routine judicial practice in ordinary criminal cases in Russia which is the root of international concern, and token gestures, such as the recent amnesty law, are no substitute for improving standards more widely,’ she stresses.

‘The release of Pussy Riot or the Greenpeace activists has much more to do with Putin's drive to polish Russia's image in the run-up to the Olympics than anything else,’ says Kobzova, adding that their release is not an admission by the state that they were unlawfully convicted or convicted on political grounds.

Regardless of the motives behind the amnesty, for Baroness Kennedy the move highlights the effectiveness of international pressure. “I do think this comes as a result of vocal criticism around the world and it shows why we have to keep criticising and expressing opposition through all our respective organisations,” she says.

‘It does in the end have an impact and leads to steps being taken which change things on the ground.  I just wish big corporates would not invest in countries which abuse human rights – that would shift standards more quickly than anything else.’

Kobzova believes that tangible improvements will only be felt in both the Russian judicial and penitentiary systems ‘with systemic improvements and reforms in the way judges are appointed, improvement of prison conditions, elimination of corruption in the system and with bolstering the judiciary's independence from political influence. Sadly, there are very few signs of any of this happening in Russia today.’