Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Why Putin Is Not Signing Any Pardons

A.G. was 14 years old when he and his brother stole a leather jacket and 10 rubles from a passer-by. The police caught them and returned the jacket and the money to the owner.

But A.G. was sentenced to five years in prison.

After three years, his wardens agreed he had long repented of the crime and said he was even "exerting a positive influence" on other teenagers. So the Presidential Pardons Commission recommended he be set free.

A year ago, this would have been enough to send A.G. home. But this year, President Vladimir Putin did not set him free.

Neither did he pardon V. Postokhailov, who was sentenced to five years for stealing three chickens and two turkeys. Nor could Y. Kozlova — a mother of three sentenced to five years for stealing a goat — count on the president's mercy.

Actually, no Russians have been pardoned this year. Anatoly Pristavkin, head of the Presidential Pardons Commission, said the only person Putin pardoned in the past six months was American businessman Edmond Pope, who was sentenced to 20 years for spying.

Pristavkin and other commission members say none of Russia's -estimated 950,000 prisoners are being pardoned because of a concerted campaign by the Justice Ministry to put the pardon system under its control.

"We're standing on the verge of destruction," commission member and human rights activist Valery Borshchov said in a recent telephone interview. He confirmed that no Russians have been pardoned since the end of September.

Founded in 1992, the pardons commission has represented the voice of Russian society, and it worked hand in hand with former President Boris Yeltsin. The commission's 17 members — who include human right activists, writers, a priest and a former judge — meet every Tuesday to sift through a stack of gruesome files containing the stories of hundreds of people stuck in overcrowded prisons and decide whom to recommend for pardoning.

The country's imperfect legal system gives them plenty to choose from — as many as 57,000 people have been pardoned since its forming, the commission members say. The numbers even surged in the past two years. In 1999 there were more than 11,000 pardons and that number topped 12,000 in 2000. Most of those pardons were approved under Yeltsin.

And then the pardons abruptly stopped.

Both Pristavkin and Borshchov said the drop in pardons is supported by a group of presidential aides acting on behalf of the Justice Ministry.

A highly placed Kremlin source agreed. "The Justice Ministry is guilty of trying to step between the president and the prisoner, which they have no right to do under the Constitution," the official said on condition of anonymity. "The ministry simply doesn't want society to have a say in it."

Justice Minister Yury Chaika wrote a letter to the presidential administration on May 18 asking that the ministry be allowed to "prepare the materials" for pardoning convicts, meaning that the Justice Ministry wants to act as a filter between prisoners and the pardons commission.

The materials, Chaika explains, would be prepared with assistance from the Prosecutor General's Office, the courts and the Interior Ministry.

In the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Moscow Times, Chaika complains that the number of pardons is surging and claims — without providing examples or figures — that there are instances of pardoned prisoners committing new crimes.

"This exerts a very negative influence on society and undermines the authority of courts, even that of the president of the Russian Federation," Chaika writes.

The justice minister's appeal is getting results. For the first time in the history of the commission, Putin recently sent the Justice Ministry a list of people recommended for pardoning by the commission and asked for its opinion.

The result, commission members say, is that the Justice Ministry has nixed 269 of the 300 or so names of people recommended for pardons. All of the people mentioned at the beginning of this story were among them. A list of the denied pardons examined by The Moscow Times identified many of the prisoners only by their initials.

The Justice Ministry is trying to chisel out a spot in the pardons process because it thinks, at least in part, that the commission is spending its time recommending hard-core gangsters and murderers. "The commission is continuing to ask that the members of criminal organizations and people accused of serious and very serious crimes be pardoned," Deputy Justice Minster Yury Kalinin wrote in an instruction sent to prison wardens on Oct. 20.

He asks the wardens to "sharply cut down the number of prisoners' pardon requests."

"I warn you of your personal responsibility and demand that you establish personal control over this matter," Kalinin wrote in the document, a copy of which was obtained by The Moscow Times.

The authenticity of the document was confirmed by highly placed sources in the Justice Ministry and the Kremlin.

Justice Ministry spokesman Boris Kalyagin, while refusing to discuss the instruction, confirmed the ministry is dissatisfied with the commission's work.

"They are freeing far too many people," he said in a telephone interview. "Many of them are accused of serious or even very serious crimes."

What can be construed as a serious crime varies wildly. Robbery, for example, is considered a serious crime if a person habitually steals or steals a large amount. If murder is committed during the robbery, it is seen as a very serious crime.

"In practice, judges often interpret two kids stealing a box of chocolates as theft by an organized group, and they end up with long prison sentences," said pardons commission member Borshchov. "Theft by an organized group" is ranked as a serious crime punishable by at least five years in prison by Paragraph 158 of the Criminal Code.

"The ministry's approach to the problem is disturbingly mechanical," Borshchov said. "You can't simply ask that everybody accused of serious crimes be treated equally. You have to approach each case individually. And that's exactly what the ministry doesn't want."

Moreover, he said, the Justice Ministry instruction is an attempt to limit prisoners' constitutional right to ask Putin for a pardon. "It's an attempt to transfer pardons from the commission to the bureaucrats' offices," he said.

"The bureaucrats with their salaries and job security problems are more manageable then well-known public figures who have integrity and get no salary for their work," he added, bitterly.

It is unclear why the ministry — which manages the country's overcrowded prisons on an insufficient budget — would want to cut down on the number of people leaving the system.

Justice Ministry spokesman Kalyagin maintains that the ministry wants the prisons emptied, only more systematically.

"We were one of the authors of the bill that will limit the number of crimes for which a person can end up in prison and will introduce alternative forms of punishment," he said.

The bill, signed into law by Putin earlier this year, is a package of amendments to the Criminal Code and three other laws regulating the country's penal policy. The amendments should cut down the prison population by 300,000 over the next three years, Kalyagin said.

"We would like the commission to be more selective in its work, that's all," he added.

The commission has asked for a meeting with Putin and is waiting for a reply.

But from all indications, Putin has so far only listened to the Justice Ministry and its proponents.

"I myself wonder why," said the Kremlin official. "I really hope they [the pardons commission] will manage to convince him otherwise."