Amnesty Of 24,000 Prisoners In Offing

The State Duma gave preliminary approval on Wednesday to an amnesty that would free about 24,000 people, mostly women and minors, from the country's overcrowded prisons.

The amnesty was passed in a first reading 358-1, Interfax reported. The move comes more than a year after a major amnesty set some 200,000 inmates free, bringing the number of prisoners nationwide to just below 1 million.

If passed into law, the latest amnesty will cover convicts who committed crimes as minors, women prisoners with underage or disabled children, pregnant women and women over 50, as well as some invalids and tuberculosis patients, news agencies reported. It would not apply to those convicted of murder, rape, terrorist acts or other grave crimes.

The bill will only affect prisoners whose sentences are six years or less, which includes many of those convicted on the infamous Article 158 of the Criminal Code. This article -- which provides for a prison term of up to five years for organized, large-scale or recurring theft -- is often used to sentence minors to long prison terms for relatively small offenses, such as stealing food with a group of cohorts.

Non-governmental organizations dealing with penal reform hailed the amnesty, but also called for more systemic changes.

"Our lawmakers are going in the right direction," said Lyudmila Alperina of the Moscow-based Center for Prison Reform. "But we still need a separate approach to juvenile and women's penal systems," she said, adding that most judges hand down the same sentence for a given crime irrespective of a defendant's age or sex.

The head of the Duma's legislative committee, Pavel Krasheninnikov, hinted Wednesday that changes addressing this concern might be in the offing.

"We should give the representatives of such unprotected groups ... as women and minors a chance to return to normal lives," Interfax quoted him as saying. "The principle of ... punishment fitting the crime should take precedence over the haphazardness and cruelty that our judicial system has inherited from the past."

According to Justice Ministry estimates, about 10,000 minors and 14,000 women would be freed under the amnesty.

Alexander Barannikov, the member of the Union of Right Forces faction who presented the amnesty to the chamber, said 738,500 people are incarcerated nationwide.

This figure appeared not to include the 200,000 people justice officials have said are behind bars, in pretrial detention centers. Barannikov said 45,900 of the inmates are women and 18,900 are minors.