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Kremlin Urged to Free Russian Political Prisoners


Russian human rights activists are urging President Dmitri Medvedev to act on his call for legal reforms by freeing individuals considered to be political prisoners. The activists say their case is supported by Mr. Medvedev's recent acknowledgement that justice in Russia may be bought with money or influenced through powerful connections. VOA Correspondent Peter Fedynsky attended the Moscow news conference where the appeal was made public.

Activists representing several of Russia's major human rights organizations have sent an open letter to President Dmitri Medvedev urging him to pardon 15 individuals serving long prison terms based not on criminal violations, but what they say is political persecution. The activists note, however, the imprisoned individuals represent only a portion of the 100, and perhaps many more political prisoners in today's Russia. They include scientists charged with espionage, Muslims accused of terrorism, and businessmen charged with economic crimes.

The activists, however, say the businessmen were targets of government officials interested in seizing their assets or eliminating political opponents. One of the imprisoned businessmen is Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a billionaire and Kremlin foe, whose Yukos Oil Company was dismantled by the Russian government. The Muslims, say their defenders, were innocent victims of anti-Islamic or anti-terrorist hysteria. And the scientists merely maintained routine professional relations with foreign colleagues or used open source materials to publish scientific papers.

Activist Ernest Cherniy, representing the Public Committee to Protect Scientists, says scientists were singled out after President Putin told Parliament in 2000 that any relations with foreigners would constitute a criminal act, although such activity is not forbidden by law.

The reason, says Cherniy, was simple; to show the political situation in the country was tense, that spies and subversives were everywhere. He adds that later, former Federal Security Service Director Nikolai, Patrushev, was able to report catching 100 spies each year. But the activist scoffs at the notion that entire battalions of spies had suddenly appeared in Russia.

On Tuesday, President Dmitri Medvedev added to his growing list of statements about the need for legal reform in Russia.

Mr. Medvedev says everyone knows that when justice fails in Russia it is often because of various pressures, including phone calls from powerful officials and money, which he referred to as a sin that cannot be disguised.

Lev Ponomarev of the For Human Rights organization says the Medvedev statement implicitly acknowledges that innocent people are imprisoned in Russia for political reasons.

Ponomarev says that if the president acknowledges the existence of telephone justice in Russia; if people are imprisoned because of phone calls from the government, then human rights activist present him with an initial list of well-known victims of such justice and call for their release. Ponomarev adds that a presidential pardon would be a sign that the legal reform process is truly under way.

Former Czech President Vaclav Havel is listed on the letter to Mr. Medvedev as a supporter of a pardon. And human rights activists say they are prepared to meet with the Kremlin leader to discuss the issue.

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