14 April 2020
Dmitry Bykov, writer, poet, journalist
The State Duma and the Federation Council have supported the idea of a broad amnesty due to the coronavirus pandemic.
It has been proposed to free inmates jailed for minor offences, as well as to close investigations for any crimes that carry jail sentences of less than five years. These proposals have not become law nor been discussed at a session of the Duma, but some movement has begun in judicial practice: the first defendant has already been released from pre-trial detention to home confinement because of the coronavirus. This was member of the Academy of Sciences Anatoly Filachov, accused of embezzling billions as director of the NGO Orion (his lawyers insist there is no evidence of his involvement).
If a decision really would be made to grant amnesty, at least for those in the high-risk age group, it would be the first truly humane act of the authorities in many years—as well as being indisputably pragmatic. In the United States, the decision to grant amnesty can be made by governors; those in Texas, Ohio, California and New York have already made the decision to reduce the prison population. In Los Angeles alone, 600 people have been freed within two weeks. In Iran, 54,000 prisoners were already released in March. Experts note that reducing the Russian prison population would save the lives not only of prisoners, but also of prison guards. That the Duma and Federation Council are not objecting to a large-scale amnesty — the first since the 70th anniversary of Victory — shows that there are nevertheless some breakthroughs in their consciousness. Russian prisons are, in and of themselves, a total hell that only the most hardened criminals deserve; during a pandemic, they are hell squared.
Inexplicably in Russia — there are many reasons — only more severe laws, only increased fear, only threats are considered effective. Yet at times, mercy is much more effective. If the amnesty intended for the 75th anniversary of Victory (the deputies S. Ivanov and S. Shargunov have presented proposals) is implemented earlier and on a larger scale, it will be the first case in the era of late Putin that the state met the wishes of human rights defenders.
And this, yet one more time, confirms the encouraging truth that in an epoch of serious trials for Russia, the solidarity between the people and the authorities indeed grows, and, what is more, in the face of a global threat even increased leniency is possible. Before you know it, television censorship will ease a bit, the wave of propaganda will ebb, and objective information will start to seep through — in short, everything will happen as during that horrible war, which many remembered — o horror! — as an epoch of relative freedom.
Translated by John Tokolish