MOSCOW (AP) — Russia's parliament on Wednesday amended an amnesty bill to include the 30-member crew of a Greenpeace ship detained after a protest at a floating oil rig in the Arctic, meaning that charges against the activists are likely to be dropped and they would ultimately be freed.
The West has been highly critical of Russia's human rights record. The carefully tailored bill, which would also release members of the Pussy Riot punk band, has been largely perceived as the Kremlin's attempt to soothe criticism ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi next year. Opposition lawmakers argued the bill doesn't go nearly far enough to free political prisoners.
The State Duma adopted final amendments to the bill which gives amnesty to a range of Russians who haven't committed violent crimes, mainly minors, invalids, veterans, pregnant women, and women with children. The vote is expected on Wednesday afternoon. Lawmakers have said they expect about 2,000 people to be released from jail.
The amnesty was extended to suspects of hooliganism who are still awaiting trial, which means that charges against 30 people aboard a Greenpeace ship who were detained after a protest in Russia's Arctic in September are likely to be dropped. The bill is also expected to release Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, the jailed members of the Pussy Riot punk band who are serving two years in prison on charges of hooliganism for an irreverent protest at Moscow's main cathedral.
Despite the expansion of the bill, it is still drawing criticism because it does not cover former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has been widely described as Russia's main 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.
Opposition lawmaker Dmitry Gudkov said the amnesty bill "has buried all hopes of human rights activists and families of political prisoners that their children and family members will be set free."
The amnesty could happen as soon as Thursday, when the bill is expected to be published in the government newspaper. But it allows a six-month period to carry out the amnesty, meaning that some of the prisoners could in theory wait weeks or months before getting released.
Lawyers and families of the Pussy Riot members insist that everyone eligible for the release ought to be allowed to walk free as soon as the bill is published. The two are now slated to be released in March.
"We're hoping that in case the bill gets passed, Nadia and Masha will be released on Thursday," Pyotr Verzilov, Tolokonnikova's husband, told The Associated Press. "There's nothing to stop this."
Greenpeace said in a statement it hopes that the amnesty bill will allow foreign crew members of the Arctic ship to get exit visas and leave Russia. 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 in the statement.
Victoria Buravchenko contributed to this report.