Russia passes bill to drop crew’s charges

Russian lawmakers have unanimously approved a Kremlin-backed amnesty bill that will lead to charges being dropped against 30 Greenpeace crew members, as well as freeing two jailed members of the punk band Pussy Riot.

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Russia’s Duma lower house of parliament voted 446 in favour, to none against, for the amnesty, which commemorates 20 years since Russia ratified its current constitution.

It should also allow several anti-Vladimir Putin protesters, jailed after a May 2012 rally, to walk out of prison.

Greenpeace says that the legal proceedings against the 28 activists and two journalists are “almost certain to come to an end” and that the 26 non-Russians among them will be free to return home as soon as they get Russian exit visas.

Russia arrested 30 members of a Greenpeace ship in September, including an Australian and two permanent residents, for protesting against oil drilling in the Russian Arctic.

They were released last month, but remain under investigation on hooliganism charges.

Greenpeace lawyer Anton Beneslavsky said on Tuesday it was too early to say when the charges could be dropped, but that it “won’t happen in the course of a day”.

The amnesty’s original draft only listed persons convicted of hooliganism as beneficiaries, but an amendment added on Wednesday extends that to defendants who have been charged.

Greenpeace says it’s not yet clear when the group will be allowed home, or what will happen to its vessel the Arctic Sunrise, which remains impounded in Murmansk since the arrests.

Tasmanian activist Colin Russell and permanent Australian residents Alex Harris from Sydney and and Jon Beauchamp from Adelaide have expressed relief at the vote.

“I know Colin Russell is desperate to get back to Tassie and return to a normal life after this extraordinary ordeal which has been so taxing for him, his wife Chrissie and daughter Maddy,” Greenpeace Australia Pacific Senior Campaigner Reece Turner said on Wednesday.

Another activist, Ana Paula Maciel from Brazil, says she’s relieved, but not celebrating.

“I spent two months in jail for a crime I didn’t commit and faced criminal charges that were nothing less than absurd, but now at last it seems like this saga could soon be over and it may not be long before we’re back with our families,” she said.

“Right now, my thoughts are with our Russian colleagues. If they accept this amnesty, they will have criminal records in the country where they live, and all for something they didn’t do. All because we stood up for Arctic protection.”

Arctic Sunrise captain Peter Wilcox, of the United States, said he should never have been charged.

“I might soon be going home to my family, but I should never have been charged and jailed in the first place.

“We sailed north to bear witness to a profound environmental threat but our ship was stormed by masked men wielding knives and guns.

“Now it’s nearly over and we may soon be truly free, but there’s no amnesty for the Arctic.”

Irina Khrunova, the lawyer for imprisoned Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, said that she expects her clients to be released before the end of year, the Itar Tass news agency reported.

On Tuesday, Khrunova – as well as Tolokonnikova’s husband, Pyotr Verzilov – had said that they could be freed as early as Thursday.

The women are serving two-year sentences for performing a political protest song against President Vladimir Putin in a Moscow church and are currently due to be released in March.