Window on Eurasia: In Russia, Even an Amnesty Can Be Cruel

by Paul A. Goble  |  5/2/2005  |  ARTICLES

Moscow granted amnesty to significantly fewer prisoners on the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe earlier this month than on any earlier occasion over the last 50 years, a reduction that has generated protests and predictions of greater unrest in Russia’s penal institutions and more crime on the streets as well.

The Soviet government and its Russian successor routinely announced amnesties of prisoners on important state anniversaries.  Five years ago, for example, on the 55th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, Moscow granted amnesties to more than 500,000 people, half of whom were then freed from correctional institutions.   Consequently, many prisoners and their families expected that this year on the „round” 60th anniversary, the Russian authorities would grant amnesty to and then release even more.  That did not happen. Instead, Moscow restricted its amnesties to a few hundred and released from penal institutions a total of just 262 people, according to prisoner rights groups.

The Russian government justified this cutback by pointing to the overall decline in the number of people incarcerated in the Russian Federation over the last decade, noting that those who remain are among the most hardened criminals, and also by  the need to limit amnesties to those directly connected with the event being marked, in this case World War II.

That decision has sparked outrage among Russian prisoner rights activists. And their organization -- the Center for the Reform of the Criminal Justice System which Academician Andrei Sakharov helped organize (see its site at http://www.prison.org/index.shtml) -- has launched an appeal calling on the Kremlin to release more people.

The appeal, which can be found both on the group’s own website and at http://www.polit.ru/dossie/2005/05/26/amnist.html, advances three interrelated arguments.  First, it notes that the Kremlin’s argument about limiting the amnesty to those connected to the war ignores the reality that almost everyone incarcerated in the Russian Federation now comes from a family that was affected by that conflict.

Why, the appeal asks,is mercy not being shown to those immediately connected to the war who were awaiting the release of someone?” And the appeal continues, „in the history of the USSR and the new Russia, there has never been an amnesty [which did not include the release of those in categories like] women with infants (there are no no less than 700 of these, children (23,000), invalids, pensioners, and participants in military actions.”

Second, the appeal notes, that by failing to show mercy in this case, the Russian government almost certainly is guaranteeing a new crime wave.  According to the prisoner rights activists, „those who are amnestied or pardoned are ten to 20 times less likely to repeat their crimes than are those forced to serve to the end of their sentences.”

And third, the appeal says, the authorities almost certainly are gauranteeing more problems for themselves in the immediate future.  On the basis of earlier precedents, many Russian prisoners expected to be amnestied on this occasion.  Their hopes hving many dashed, they are likely to cause more trouble for guards and others in the prison system.

Indeed, the appeal suggests, their anger threatens to exacerbate an already explosive situation.  In 2004, the Justice Ministry reported that there had been „a remarkable growth” in inmate crime and that the number of mass prisoner protests had increased several times over the last year, forcing the authorities to call in spetsnaz troops to quell disturbances.

(For a detailed discussion of these and other problems in Russia’s prison system, see the March 2005 lecture b