20 years under Putin: a timeline

On Monday, April 23rd, Russia's outgoing President Dmitri Medvedev pardoned a number of prisoners on humanitarian grounds. Among them was Sergei Mokhnatkin, the only political prisoner on the list of 37 inmates compiled by a group of human rights activists and submitted to the President in February.



Sergei Mokhnatkin, known as the “accidental political prisoner," is a unique case. In 2009, he was passing by a political demonstration and  he ended up coming to the defense of an elderly female protester being beaten by riot police. He was not a political activist or a member of  Strategy-31, the opposition group that organized the rally. Because of his actions, he was detained and pushed onto a police bus. At this point, as the police reported, he broke an officer's nose. At his trial, Mokhnatkin was sentenced to 2.5 years in a penal colony for “resisting a police officer" and an attack that, according to Mokhnatkin, never took place. Mokhnatkin refused to plead guilty.

Olga Shorina, press secretary of the Solidarity opposition group, told the BBC that a about 20 activists and journalists came to greet Mokhnatkin upon his release from the prison colony in the Tver' region. She also said that Mr. Mokhnatkin had plans for taking an active role in public life.

President Medvedev's meek pardons met the approval of human rights activists, although not without a measure of   disappointment. The Wall Street Journal quotes Lev Ponomarev, head of the For Human Rights movement, who called Medvedev’s decree “worthless,” considering the fact that Mr. Mokhnatkin was about six months away from finishing his sentence anyway.

Political analysts pointed out that the outgoing president was merely looking for PR. “This was clearly a publicity stunt. Medvedev took the path of least resistance,” Pavel Salin, an analyst at the Center for Current Politics, told The Moscow Times. “Since the very beginning of his presidency, Medvedev has said that freedom is better than the lack of freedom,” said Alexei Mukhin, head of the Center for Political Technologies think tank. “Now he is saying the same thing, out of the apparent desire to remind people that his liberal attitudes have not changed.” “Under Medvedev, a massive gap has formed between the rhetoric on democracy and the reality of the political situation," added Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Center in Moscow.

Following news of Mokhnatkin’s release, Gazeta.Ru, a Russian online newspaper, published an editorial that harshly criticized Medvedev’s questionable decision: “Medvedev pardoned the person who was sentenced unjustly (as thought by many), who had served most of his term and [had] been beaten in prison. Those who initiated the case against Mokhnatkin won't be punished, that's for sure. And all of this the President calls 'being guided by the principles of humanity.'”

The President, who had once called for a change in the legal consciousness  and for overcoming legal nihilism in Russia, has proven once and for all that he is no master of his own words. Mokhnatkin’s case, as well as many other, much more high-profile cases, such as Sergei Magnitsky’s or Alexei Kozlov’s, are clear-cut evidence of Medvedev’s neglect of the law and justice.

As Gazeta.Ru points out, President Medvedev has publicly demonstrated that he has neither the political influence nor the personal bravery to pardon any of the more prominent political prisoners. Earlier this month he refused to pardon Mikhail Khodorkovsky on the grounds that the latter had not asked for clemency. “In this case the pardon of an innocent bystander is the symbolic result of Medvedev's rule. [For the Russian government, mercy happens accidentally, while unlawful cruelty is, sadly, the order of the day,” the Gazeta.ru's editorial concludes.

Russia under Putin

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