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Putin dampens amnesty chances for Khodorkovsky, Pussy Riot

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the audience during a meeting with members of the All-Russian People's Front group in Moscow, Dec
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the audience during a meeting with members of the All-Russian People's Front group in Moscow, Dec

By Steve Gutterman

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev hinted on Friday that former Yukos oil company chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky would not be freed under an amnesty President Vladimir Putin is preparing, and a prosecutor said the jailed tycoon could face new charges.

The head of Putin's human rights council said this week that Khodorkovsky and two women from the punk band Pussy Riot could benefit from the amnesty marking the anniversary of the adoption of Russia's post-Soviet constitution in 1993.

But, without naming names, Medvedev said Russia should be careful about freeing people convicted of crimes like hooliganism - the charge in the Pussy Riot case - and theft, which was the indictment against Khodorkovsky.

"Our people really are not much inclined, for example, to conduct acts of amnesty for individuals involved in violent crimes, for individuals who committed crimes against society, including hooliganism," Medvedev said in a TV interview.

"People are not very inclined to decide to issue an amnesty for those who committed major state crimes (such as) theft. And so the president and parliament must listen to public opinion."

Supporters say Khodorkovsky, arrested in 2003, was jailed to curb a political challenge to Putin, bring his oil assets under state control and send a signal to other tycoons to toe the line.

In the eyes of Kremlin critics at home and abroad, Khodorkovsky's jailing is one of the biggest stains on the record of Putin, who was first elected president in 2000 and has not ruled out seeking another six-year term in 2018.

Khodorkovsky is due for release in August but some activists doubt he will walk free while Putin is in power. The authorities continue to investigate dealings at now-defunct Yukos, prompting frequent speculation he could face new charges.

Deputy Prosecutor-General Alexander Zvyagintsev said several cases involving Khodorkovsky were being pursued and had "good prospects for going to court," Interfax news agency reported.

TRIPLE JEOPARDY

Khodorkovsky was convicted in 2005 and again in 2010, prompting accusations that Russia has tried him twice for the same activities. A third trial would badly damage Russia's image unless there was iron-clad evidence of wrongdoing.

Putin has suggested Khodorkovsky has blood on his hands, referring to a murder conviction against a former Yukos security chief. Zvyagintsev gave no details about any case involving Khodorkovsky.

The Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed source as saying authorities were investigating suspicions of the laundering of more than $10 billion and the possible use of laundered money to change Russian legislation - an apparent reference to the funding of political parties or civil society groups.

Khodorkovsky and the jailed women from Pussy Riot are considered political prisoners by Kremlin opponents, but Medvedev said there were no political prisoners in Russia. Putin has repeatedly said the same thing.

Pussy Riot's Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina are serving two-year sentences for a "punk prayer" protest against Putin in Russia's main cathedral that infuriated the Russian Orthodox Church and offended many believers. They are due for release in March.

Western governments have called the punishment excessive and Kremlin opponents saw their trial as part of a clampdown on dissent during Putin's third presidential term, from May 2012.

While Medvedev suggested Russians convicted of hooliganism should not expect to be freed in an amnesty, both Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina have young children, which officials have suggested could be a factor in the decision.

Also charged with hooliganism are 28 Greenpeace activists and two journalists arrested for a protest against Arctic oil drilling, after some tried to scale Russia's first offshore oil platform in the region in September.

All 30, citizens of 18 countries, are out on bail but remain in Russia. They face up to seven years in prison if convicted.

Medvedev also suggested defendants in the trial of 12 people accused of rioting and violence against police at a protest on the eve of Putin's inauguration should not expect to be spared by the amnesty.

People face such charges "not because they hold political views that differ from those of Putin or Medvedev ... but because they beat police," he said. "That is unacceptable."

Opposition leaders say the charges are unfounded and that the authorities deliberately provoked violence at the rally.

(Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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