Russian releases: Putin shows inmates mercy before the Olympics

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Russia has released from prison three high-profile, news-making sets of prisoners, likely in an attempt to clean up the country’s poor human rights record in advance of the Sochi Winter Olympic games in February.

First out, on Dec. 20, was Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, the former CEO of Russian oil giant Yukos and a philanthropist. He was arrested in 2003, found guilty of fraud and sentenced to 10 years in prison, most of which he spent in a penal colony near the Arctic Circle.

Next out were Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, the two remaining imprisoned members of Pussy Riot, a performance art group opposed to President Vladimir V. Putin. They were convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred after performing a number titled “Mother of God, Chase Putin Away” on the altar of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral last year. They were released Dec. 23 from a prison in Siberia.

The third group freed were 30 members of Greenpeace, including two journalists, who were arrested and convicted of hooliganism after trying to interfere with a Russian oil drilling rig in the Arctic Ocean.

Reliable data is not available on how many other political prisoners Russia holds, but Mr. Khodorkovsky has pledged to try to help those remaining. Pussy Riot has promised to continue to be active in opposing Mr. Putin. Americans generally find the reasons for such detentions abhorrent, but the Russian government refuses to define those released as political prisoners.

Some Russians might argue that there was reason to prosecute these individuals. Mr. Khodorkovsky, apart from being a political opponent of Mr. Putin, was an oligarch who became enormously wealthy in the death throes of the old Soviet Union. Pussy Riot offended not only Mr. Putin but also the Russian Orthodox Church, which is strong in Russia and also supports Mr. Putin. Greenpeace consists of committed environmentalists, but if a comparable group attacked a drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, its members might be prosecuted in U.S. courts.

It is fair to question Mr. Putin’s motive in the releases, which is certainly not altruism or holiday spirit. And it’s a pleasure to welcome the former prisoners into the open air.

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