Thousands of Russian entrepreneurs jailed for economic crimes could be a step closer to freedom after President Vladimir Putin said a draft amnesty bill was ready and may be taken up by parliament before its summer break.
But Mikhail Khodorkovsky, founder of defunct oil firm Yukos and a prominent critic of Putin, is unlikely to be released early under the amnesty which would only apply to those who have been convicted once. Khodorkovsky was convicted twice, of fraud in 2005 and again in 2010.
Khodorkovsky was not able to give immediate comment, a spokeswoman said. His website quoted his defence lawyer Vadim Klyuvgant as saying that the amnesty had been designed to keep Khodorkovsky and business partner Platon Lebedev behind bars.
"These slingshots have been invented and aimed so many times. They are just mangling the laws for this purpose," Klyuvgant commented. "How can we discuss such legal scribblings when they are designed to harm one or two individuals?"
The jailing of entrepreneurs, often on trumped-up charges pressed by corrupt investigators and judges, harks back to the repressive justice of the Soviet era and is a glaring example of Russia's poor investment climate.
Critics of Putin say that since he first became president in 2000, he has encouraged the use of selective justice to sideline some of the powerful "oligarchs" who made their fortunes in the turbulent 1990s.
The criminalization of business disputes, symptomatic of the country's weak rule of law, has acted as a drag on new businesses and hampered attempts to reduce Russia's economic reliance on natural resources.
In a major speech to investors, Putin promised to install a rule of "more than justice."
"It's not just an act of humanity; it's a signal to our supervisory bodies that we have a chance to reorganize the environment for entrepreneurs," Putin, 60, said to applause.
The amnesty was broached last year by Boris Titov, an ombudsman whose role is to relay the concerns of business to the government.
Titov said that around 10,000 prisoners could come under the amnesty as currently designed, fewer than the 13,000 previously envisioned.
"A lot of people were sentenced because someone wanted their property or their money in corrupt schemes, or there was a conflict with other businessmen and they couldn't find a solution," Titov said in an interview.
"So this is the logic of the amnesty, yes someone will (be let) out who really committed a crime, but it's better to do this than to keep a really innocent person, even one, in jail."
Putin said legislation has changed and many people would not have been convicted had current laws been in place.
However, he said there should not be haste in enacting the amnesty or freeing those who committed serious offenses against the state or property.
The amnesty would be applied to those who were convicted for the first time and for people who agree to repay damages.
Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are due to be released from jail next year, but activity by Russian investigators has stoked speculation that a third prosecution may be brought.
"The amnesty is not quite comprehensible because it's conditional," former finance minister Alexei Kudrin said. "It's an unusual proposal."
Asked whether he believed the scope of the amnesty had been narrowed to keep Khodorkovsky in jail, Kudrin said he had not expected the former oil tycoon to be freed early.
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