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Putin announces amnesty for jailed oil tycoon, punk rock band Pussy Riot

December 19, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Russian President Vladimir Putin presided over his annual news conference today, and despite the marathon session with reporters, he held back the most news-making announcement until after it was over.

The tightly choreographed event attracted hundreds of Russian journalists, with some holding signs and even stuffed animals and dolls, hoping Putin would notice and call on them. But the Russian leader saved his biggest headline until the four-hour-long news conference finally ended, announcing he will pardon the jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russian President (through interpreter): He has already spent more than 10 years in jail. It is a serious punishment. He refers to circumstances of the humanitarian nature. His mother is ill. And I think that, bearing in mind those circumstances, it is possible to make that decision, and I will soon sign an order about his pardon.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Khodorkovsky was once the wealthiest oligarch in Russia, but he was arrested at gunpoint in 2003 after criticizing Putin and funding opposition parties. He was convicted of tax evasion and embezzlement, in cases widely viewed as part of Putin’s campaign to silence critics.

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Today’s pardon announcement was coupled with amnesty for two members of the punk rock band Pussy Riot, jailed after an anti-Kremlin protest at Moscow’s main cathedral, and for 30 crew members of a Greenpeace ship who protested Russian oil drilling in the Arctic.

VLADIMIR PUTIN (through interpreter): It is not a revision of the court’s decision; this is a general decision about the amnesty, which covers them as well. It is not connected to Greenpeace or to this particular band. It is not my decision, but the decision of the State Duma.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All of this as Putin is trying to tamp down criticism of Russia’s record on human rights and political freedoms. The Russian president also tried today to ease strained ties with Washington. He denied Russian intelligence has pumped Edward Snowden for information since the National Security Agency leaker was given asylum in August.

VLADIMIR PUTIN (through interpreter): We do not work with him and have never worked with him. And we don’t bug him with all those questions as to what was being done in relation to Russia or how it was being done at the agency he worked for.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Putin also said he believes U.S. surveillance efforts are needed to fight terrorism if there are clear ground rules.

But on Iran’s nuclear program, he warned that new American sanctions against 19 Iranian companies could hinder progress toward a comprehensive agreement.

VLADIMIR PUTIN (through interpreter): As for sanctions, I’m certain that this is a counterproductive decision. It will not lead to anything good in terms of final agreements on solving this issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At the same time, Putin defended Russia’s agreement to offer a $15 billion bailout to Ukraine as merely helping a partner in need.

VLADIMIR PUTIN (through interpreter): This is not linked, neither with the protests, nor with talks between Ukraine and the European Union. We just see that Ukraine is in a difficult state, and it is necessary to support it, and we have this opportunity to support them financially.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Putin’s news conference comes as Russia prepares to host the Sochi Winter Olympics in February and just over a week after he was criticized for shutting down a state news agency, which attempted to include the voices of the country’s opposition in its coverage.

The exact timing of the release of Khodorkovsky and the others is still unknown.