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Russia: Pardon System Plays Mercy Role Amid A Cruel Society

  • Sophie Lambroschini

While the U.S. presidential pardon system is now under a cloud because of controversial decisions President Bill Clinton made just before leaving office last month, Russia's presidential pardon system seems to be functioning well. RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent, Sophie Lambroschini, says that presidential pardons in Russia have a special "mercy" role to play in the country's harsh society.

Moscow, 23 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In December, after nine months in pre-trial detention, U.S. businessman Edmond Pope was convicted of espionage by a Russian court and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The first thing Pope did after being sentenced was to send a letter to President Vladimir Putin asking for a pardon.

Pope's request, replete with official stamps and supplemented by documents provided by prison authorities, was then forwarded to the Presidential Pardons Commission. After some deliberation, the commission's 15 members delivered a favorable recommendation to Putin. Within a few weeks, Putin formally pardoned Pope and the businessman was out of jail, out of Russia, and back with his family in the United States.

Pope is one of some 12,500 convicts who last year received pardons or reprieves from the Russian president.

Anatoly Pristavkin, the head of the Presidential Pardons Commission, says that the institution has a special role to play in what he describes as "humanizing" Russia's judicial system. A much-praised writer who spent many of his childhood years in Stalinist camps, Pristavkin says that by recommending pardons, the commission is "spreading the idea of mercy" in a society which was educated on the Stalinist motto that "a thief should sit [in jail]." He says that today Russian prosecutors, investigators, and judges remain obedient to the same mentality.

As a result, one Russian man in four has spent time in jail. Some of them were in pre-trial detention that often ended in acquittal. Some of them were in jail as convicts found guilty of a crime. And many were imprisoned as part of political repression under the Soviet regime.

Pristavkin says his commission -- composed largely of intellectuals appointed by the president for their moral integrity -- can change the prevailing mentality by promoting pardons and reprieves.

"Russia is a very cruel country, a country that is self-destructing through alcoholism, through domestic murders, and other such things. So our task is to soften these ways, to help people understand that punishment does not lead to progress and mercy, but that it is mercy that makes us humane in our treatment of each other."

Pristavkin hopes that what he calls "propagating mercy" will make public opinion more supportive of a permanent ban on the death penalty -- which has been under a moratorium since 1996, the year Russia was admitted to the Council of Europe -- and some important amendments to the penal code.

A pardon should not be simply a private act of grace from the president, Pristavkin says, but an integral part of the country's social and moral system. But a pardon, he makes clear, does not undo a person's guilt or conviction.

In Western democracies, a presidential pardon may often seem to be a somewhat old-fashioned practice, a direct inheritance from the historic "king's right to mercy."

But in Russia pardons are an important tool in the face of a failing court system, under which many people are regularly sentenced to long years in prison for theft.

Pristavkin explains:

"The philosophical and human dimensions are not different at all. But since for the time being Russia is still standing on the threshold of civilized principles and because we are still a criminal country where every fifth person has been behind bars -- in these conditions, when a person is not protected in any way, pardon is especially important because we can help a person who is beyond any one else's help."

More than half of Russia's prison population of almost a million was convicted of theft. And many of them are people who simply made a mistake. But, Pristavkin says, years in jail will turn them into hardened criminals.

Usually a convict has a greater chance of being pardoned if he has completed at least half of his sentence, has behaved well in prison, and can show he will be able to reintegrate into society -- for example, by taking the responsibility for a child. Pardons are almost never awarded to rapists, child murderers, or drug dealers.

But other convicts may get a pardon immediately after the commission considers their requests. Because of a much-criticized article in the Russian penal code which provides for a five-year sentence for theft after a break-in, Pristavkin says the commission makes numerous exceptions. Among those pardoned immediately, for example, was a woman who was sentenced to four-and-a-half years for stealing a pair of boots in a workers hostel.

According to the Kremlin's pardons office, the president usually follows the commission's recommendation. Opinions differ on Vladimir Putin's pardon policy. Most independent non-governmental organizations say Putin pays more attention to individual pardon requests than former President Boris Yeltsin. But it is still unclear whether Putin will be more lenient than Yeltsin, who was reputed to sign pardons "without even a glance."

The pardons commission says that in 1992, his first year in office, Yeltsin pardoned 4,000 convicts. Seven years later, at the end of his last year in office, he pardoned 11,000.

Human-rights organizations agree that amid the mess of Russia's court system, pardons have evolved favorably over the past years. Valery Sergeyev works for Penal Reform International, an NGO that promotes prison reform in Russia. He agrees with Pristavkin on the special role of pardons in Russia.

"There can't be 100 percent right [decisions], not in any system. But when not a single stage of the legal and judicial system works, then pardons are -- let's say -- a kind of help that relieves our system [a bit]."

But the commission has its problems too -- notably attempts to influence its decisions. Pristavkin says: "Whenever a [Duma] deputy or a governor intervenes for someone -- when we open a case -- it's about big time crime and this person [that is, the lobbyist] is influential."

In addition, prison authorities may try to impede the pardon process by not providing the necessary papers. Vyacheslav Ermanok of the Society for Promoting Prison Reform, another NGO, says this often occurs when the convict is a good worker and earns money for the prison.

Perhaps more important, some NGOs say, the pardon system is critically flawed by its lack of openness. Presidential pardon decrees are not made public and are reserved for "internal use."

Sergey Sayapin, head of Information-Consultation-Assistance -- an NGO that works directly on pardons -- says this makes it difficult to monitor how the system works. He points out that no one knows who has been pardoned and why. For the pardons system to be called democratic, Sayapin says, "society at large -- but also its victims -- should have the right to know who has requested and who has been granted a pardon."

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