After being criticized for attending a February meeting with President Dmitri Medvedev, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov responded that if just one political prisoner was freed as a result of their conversation, he would consider his decision justified. At that meeting, Nemtsov handed Medvedev a list of 37 political prisoners whose release—along with free elections and the registration of opposition parties—was demanded at the mass opposition rallies that have swept Russia since December.
On Monday, the Kremlin published the decree granting a pardon to Sergei Mokhnatkin, one of the prisoners on Nemtsov’s list. Mokhnatkin, a 58-year-old computer programmer in jail for more than two years, has never been involved in politics or human rights activism. On December 31, 2009, he was walking near Moscow’s Triumfalnaya Square, where an opposition rally was being dispersed by police. When he saw an officer beating an elderly woman, he intervened to protect her. For this “crime,” he received a two-and-a-half-year sentence. During his imprisonment, Mokhnatkin was beaten, placed in solitary confinement, and endured several hunger strikes in protest at his conditions.
According to the Kremlin, the decision to pardon Mokhnatkin was “guided by the principles of humanity.” “This is a precedent,” stressed Nemtsov, pointing to the fact that, although Mokhnatkin did petition for clemency, he did not admit guilt—until now, a prerequisite for receiving a pardon. In fact, Mokhnatkin’s lawyer has already indicated that, despite his early release, he will continue to appeal the original conviction. Sergei Mokhnatkin is only one on the list of 37 political prisoners handed to Medvedev on February 20th. There is nothing to indicate that other high-profile detainees—including Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, serving since 2003 and set to remain behind bars until 2016—will be pardoned in the next two weeks (Medvedev’s remaining time as president). But even this single political pardon would not be imaginable before the recent rise in the protest movement.
Meanwhile, another opposition victory was scored in the city of Astrakhan, where recent mayoral elections were likely rigged in favor of the Kremlin’s protégé. After a 40-day hunger strike, the weakened but emboldened opposition candidate Oleg Shein got what he wanted: a public admission from the head of Russia’s central electoral commission that violations were recorded at 128 of Astrakhan’s 202 polling places. “Our hunger strike has fulfilled its objectives … Thank you to everyone who supported us,” blogged Shein as he readied for a new battle: on Thursday, a district court will begin hearings on the lawsuit brought by Shein’s campaign that challenges the official results of the March 4th election and calls for its rerun. If one is ordered, there is little doubt that Astrakhan will join the slate of municipalities where opposition candidates have, in recent weeks, soundly defeated Kremlin supporters.
Photo Credit: Ilya Varlamov