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Lebedev Freed, Forty Political Prisoners Remain

At 10 p.m. Moscow time on Friday, two passenger cars left the IK-16 prison colony near Velsk, in Russia’s northern Arkhangelsk Region, and headed for Moscow. One of them carried Platon Lebedev, the former business partner of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and—like Khodorkovsky himself—a political prisoner for more than a decade. Lebedev was arrested by the Russian authorities in July 2003 as the Kremlin-instigated Yukos case was gaining steam and as a warning to Khodorkovsky—a prominent critic of the Putin regime and major sponsor of opposition parties—not to return to Russia. The CEO of Yukos at the time, Khodorkovsky did return, unwilling to leave his colleague as a hostage, and was himself arrested in October 2003. Amnesty International recognized both Khodorkovsky and Lebedev as prisoners of conscience.

On January 23rd, the Presidium of the Russian Supreme Court annulled some of the minor charges in Lebedev’s conviction and reduced his prison sentence to the time served. A month after Khodorkovsky’s own release following a presidential pardon, his former business partner is also a free man.

The list of Russian political prisoners is now one person shorter. But 40 people remain on this list—40 people whose only “guilt” is having crossed the Kremlin’s path. “The piecemeal releases of people who were imprisoned for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression is no substitute for an effective justice system,” said John Dalhuisen, the Europe program director at Amnesty International. “The Russian authorities must release immediately and unconditionally all prisoners of conscience and remove the charges from those already at liberty.”

The release of Platon Lebedev was not the only decision made last week by the Supreme Court. In direct violation of the July 2013 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, and despite the fact that this money was already paid to the Russian government by means of Yukos commercial papers, Russian judges upheld a 17.4 billion rubles ($504 million) tax penalty on Khodorkovsky and Lebedev. The purpose is not hard to discern. With this “debt,” Khodorkovsky would be unable to leave Russia were he to return to the country now, which—given that his elderly mother is receiving medical treatment abroad—means a de facto ban on returning. “I heard the signal,” Khodorkovsky said after the ruling. “They [the authorities] answered me by refusing to implement a European Court decision. This means only one thing: I am not welcome in Russia.”

Needless to say, this ban is only temporary. Just as Soviet-era dissidents—including Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Vladimir Bukovsky—who were forcibly (and supposedly “forever”) expelled to the West eventually returned to their homeland, so will Mikhail Khodorkovsky. As Bukovsky said during one of his recent visits to Moscow, “Here I am. And where is the Soviet Communist Party?”

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