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Putin Scolds Pussy Riot, But Approves Their Release From Prison

Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova H
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova behind bars during the Pussy Riot trial.

The Russian president said the punk band's behavior was "degrading to women," and then stuns the world on Friday by signing a pardon for jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin has confirmed that the two jailed members of Pussy Riot will soon be released under an amnesty bill, but scolded Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina during his annual news conference on Thursday.

"I feel sorry not because they went to prison, but because they committed that provocative act, which degraded women," Putin said.

The two women are serving two-year sentences for the anti-Putin "punk prayer," staged at Moscow’s Christ the Savior cathedral in February last year, during the election campaign before the president won his third term in power.

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In remarks about the amnesty bill, under which around 25,000 people who have committed nonviolent crimes, and those who are mothers of small children, are to be released, Putin stressed that neither women had received any special treatment.

“This isn’t a revision of the court verdict,” he said. “This is an overall decision, which applies to them."

He added the decision was a more humanitarian approach to criminal sentencing. Its adoption came on the 20th anniversary of Russia's post-Soviet Constitution, adopted in 1993.

The Pussy Riot pair had been expected to be released on Thursday, the day after the amnesty bill was unanimously adopted on its third parliamentary reading.

But prison authorities say they are waiting for documents necessary for their release, including birth certificates and other forms of identification, before they are freed.

The young women are, however, likely to be out before the new year, which is Russia's biggest annual holiday.

In a separate shocking turn, jailed Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky could also be a free man by then.

FILM REVIEW: Khodorkovsky

Putin's surprise revelation to journalists after the conclusion of Thursday's marathon four-hour-long Kremlin press conference, that he would soon pardon the former Yukos oil boss, came as almost a casual aside.

"Not long ago he appealed to me for a pardon," Putin told reporters.

"He has already spent 10 years behind bars -- it's a serious punishment. He mentions humanitarian considerations, as his mother is ill. Given all this, the correct decision should be taken and a decree on his pardoning will be signed very soon."

True to his word, Putin signed the decree pardoning Khodorkovsky Friday morning. The decree stated that the decision was "guided by humanitarian principles" and would come into effect immediately.

The news that Khodorkovksy would soon be free took his family and legal team by surprise.

Lawyers for the man who was once Russia's richest and has been behind bars since being arrested at gunpoint in April 2003 on the tarmac of a Siberian airport, said they knew nothing about the pardon.

But Friday in an interview with business daily Kommersant, Khodorkovsky's elderly mother, Marina, who is being treated for cancer, said she had learned the news from the media, but confirmed it could be true.

"It's true that both my husband, Boris, and I are sick," she told the paper. "I've been in hospital the last three months and was discharged just a week ago. Boris is 80 now and his health has also deteriorated."

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Kommersant reported that the jailed businessman had been put under pressure by the security services to petition for a pardon.

Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokeman, said on Friday that the petition had been signed personally by Khodorkovsky, suggesting that no lawyers were involved.

Khordokovsky has always maintained he is innocent of the tax evasion and other economic crimes for which he was convicted at two separate trials.

Petitioning for a presidential pardon implies acceptance of the legitimacy of his conviction. That would end his chance of rehabilitation in Russia and prevent an international campaign to recover the assets of his oil company, seized by the Kremlin after his arrest.

A spokesman for Khodorkovsky told The Hollywood Reporter that no statements would be issued before lawyers had met with him in the prison camp, Correctional Colony No. 7 -- known by its Russian acronym of IK-7 -- located near the town of Sergezha, close to the border with Finland, 800 miles northwest of Moscow.

"It takes a day to get to the prison by train or car, and we won't comment until after this lawyers have seen him," the spokesman said.

As for Putin's pardon, the spokesman added, somewhat brusquely: "So what? He can sign what he wants. We are saying noting until our lawyers have seen Khodorkovksy."

The prison amnesty, which has also brought to an end the trials against 28 Greenpeace activists and two journalists arrested in seas off Russia's northern coast in September during a protest against gas drilling in the Arctic, is seen as part of a operation to clean up Russia's humanitarian image ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympics, due to open in a little over six weeks.