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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pardons No Substitute For Justice

The Presidential Pardons Commission has recommended that President Vladimir Putin extend a pardon to American Edmond Pope, who was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 20 years in prison on Wednesday.

Commission Chairman Anatoly Pristavkin, announcing the decision, emphasized that "we do not judge or discuss the court’s decision, but instead base our actions on the laws of charity and humanity."

If the "laws of charity and humanity" are the only mechanism for reversing this horrendous verdict, which came after a trial that was a sheer mockery, then so be it. Pope has not been shown to have committed any crime and should go free.

However, Russia’s system of pardons is a poor substitute for a working system of justice. In fact, the practice of pardoning people who are abused by the justice system — both law enforcement agencies and the courts — makes a mockery of the rule of law and even facilitates further abuses of the system.

To make matters worse, the State Duma has adopted the habit of annual amnesties. These result in the release of thousands of people who probably should never have been imprisoned to begin with, as well as of thousands of people who by rights should serve out their sentences. Either way, it is an appallingly primitive practice that systematically destroys public confidence in the legal system and inhibits reform.

Although the Presidential Pardons Commission is notoriously tight-lipped, one member spoke out in the Pope case. Maria Chudakova told reporters that the trial showed "the investigative organs in our country still bear the marks of the Soviet system." She is absolutely right.

If Putin grants the pardon — and we say again that he should — he should also emphasize that he is not being magnanimous. He is not responding to appeals from the U.S. government or demonstrating compassion for a man who is ill.

Instead, he must make it clear that he is using the most expedient method of justly treating a man who has thus far been denied justice by the prosecutors and the courts. His pardon for Pope should be a clear rebuke to the prosecutors and the judge in this case and a call to the parliament for serious and systematic legal reform.

Arbitrary pardons and blanket amnesties are holdovers from a legal system of show trials (as are "posthumous rehabilitations"). Russia needs a system of just laws equitably applied and strong protections for the rights of defendants. Then we won’t need to appeal to "the laws of charity and humanity."