Install

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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

City Pardons Chief Has Checkered Past

Despite a March 1 deadline, only one person has been appointed to the 15-member pardons commission meant to decide the fate of Moscow's prisoners -- its chairman, former First Deputy Mayor Boris Nikolsky, now City Hall's representative to the Federation Council.

But Nikolsky's Communist Party past -- specifically his part in ordering the violent crackdown on unarmed civilians in Tbilisi in 1989 -- has raised doubts about the moral authority of the future commission.

The need for the new body arose late last year after the Kremlin disbanded the Presidential Pardons Commission staffed by respected cultural and public figures, and called instead for the creation of 89 regional commissions. Like their predecessor, the commissions are to collect appeals from prisoners, review them and submit recommendations to the president, who has the sole authority to grant pardons under the Constitution.

But human right advocates expressed concern that the substitution of veteran bureaucrats for such principled and reputable men as Anatoly Pristavkin, the writer who headed the original commission from its creation in 1992, could undermine public trust in a country wary of being too soft on criminals.

"Such a commission will not have sufficient moral authority to stand behind its decisions," said Anvar Amirov, a political analyst from the Panorama think tank. "It was one thing when Anatoly Pristavkin and [the late poet] Bulat Okudzhava pleaded for a pardon on someone's behalf, but it will be absolutely different in the public's eyes when somebody like Nikolsky submits proposals."

A native Muscovite, Nikolsky, now 64, rose quickly up the Communist Party career ladder to join the city's leadership in the 1970s and, in 1984, was sent to Soviet Georgia as the deputy head of the local Party branch. While Nikolsky was the second man in the republic, perestroika-inspired protests by Georgians demanding greater sovereignty reached their apex and, on April 9, 1989, Soviet troops were called in to quash the demonstrations. Their violent attempt to disperse the rally with clubs and shovels left some 20 civilians dead and more than 200 injured.

In his book, "Tbilisi Turning Point," the late mayor of St. Petersburg and prominent liberal politician Anatoly Sobchak, who headed an investigative commission sent to Tbilisi, wrote that Nikolsky had played an active role in the authorities' decision to bring troops into the city and use them against civilians.

"Nikolsky was a direct organizer of that action," said Levan Ramishvili, head of the Tbilisi-based human rights organization Institute of Freedom. "We have evidence that he gave instructions and orders at meetings of the Central Committee [of the Georgian Communist Party] at that time."

Ramishvili added that "Moscow didn't fully trust the regional Party's first secretaries and planted second secretaries [usually ethnic Russians] through whom it acted in crisis situations" -- a trend widely acknowledged among observers of Soviet politics.

Shortly after the carnage in Tbilisi, Nikolsky returned to Moscow. In 1991, he became a deputy mayor and, in 1996, was appointed first deputy in charge of housing and utilities.

Repeated requests for comment left with Nikolsky's offices at City Hall and the Federation Council went unanswered. A secretary at Nikolsky's City Hall office said only that "no other members of the commission have been determined so far" and asked to call back later in the week.

Mayor Yury Luzhkov appointed Nikolsky to head the city's pardons commission Feb. 15 and ordered him to form it within two weeks. The mayor's press service declined to comment on the delay.

An official working with national human rights chief Oleg Mironov said the delay violates the Constitution.

"Prisoners held in Moscow have a constitutional right to ask for a pardon," Vladimir Tambovtsev, a lawyer with Mironov's office, said in a recent telephone interview. "Depriving them of this right for a long time is against the law."

Many other regional pardons commissions are up and functioning -- in a number of cases with bureaucrats at the helm.

Viktor Kogan-Yasny of the Memorial human rights group cautioned that the general trend of "bureaucratizing" the commissions could be more dangerous than the dubious credentials of a given member. "Appointing a faceless official, like Nikolsky, to decide on pardons undermines the very concept of pardoning," Kogan-Yasny said. "When a man applies for a pardon, it means that government officials ... have already made all their decisions about him" and the process must move beyond the formalities of the imperfect legal system. "It can only be the prerogative of acknowledged moral authorities," he said.

During the final year of its existence, Pristavkin's commission found itself doing battle with government bureaucrats -- namely, the Justice Ministry, which called on President Vladimir Putin to give it control over processing pardons requests. Commission members have said that, in nearly a decade of work, they recommended pardons for some 57,000 prisoners. But while pardons handed down by former President Boris Yeltsin climbed from more than 11,000 in 1999 to more than 12,000 in 2000, Putin pardoned only one prisoner in his first year as president -- suspected U.S. spy Edmond Pope.

Justice Ministry officials have tried to play down fears that bureaucrats will dominate the new commission. Alexander Buksman, head of the ministry's Moscow branch, was quoted by RIA Novosti as saying that the city's commission would be made up of "respectable people with immaculate reputations."

However, a spokeswoman for Buksman's office said Monday that their agency hopes to have a representative on the Moscow commission.

According to Buksman, the new body would not be overburdened with work, as most of Moscow's jails hold suspects rather than convicts. He said only about 800 prisoners are serving sentences in the city.

Former members of the disbanded Presidential Commission were more restrained in their assessments of the new system.

"I cannot say a priori that a commission led by a bureaucrat will be inferior to our commission in terms of moral authority," said prominent theater director Mark Rozovsky, who worked in Pristavkin's commission for two years. "However, I think it would be worthwhile if members of the new commissions met us and heard about the criteria we used in deciding on pardons. ... Not doing so would mean trampling our 10 years' worth of experience."

Otherwise, Rozovsky said, the loss of standardized criteria for the commissions' work was inevitable. "Pardons granted in regions governed by liberal leaders will differ from those in the so-called Red Belt where people tend to support capital punishment," he said.

Rozovsky also cautioned that the likelihood of corruption among members of the newly formed commissions would be higher because "controlling more than 900 people is much harder than overseeing only 17."

But another member of the disbanded commission, respected Moscow priest Alexander Borisov, said that regularly reviewing convicts' applications would inevitably soften any man's heart.

"A bureaucrat is also a human being and no stranger to mercy and common sense," he said. "There were state officials working in our commission and they were sometimes more merciful than the others. ... Considering cases for half a year changes people, they become softer."