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Mr Putin, seize this chance to release dissidents

FIFA World Cup is the perfect stage for Russia to show it respects human rights

analysis Updated: Jun 22, 2018 07:24 IST
President of Russia Vladimir Putin, Diego Maradona and Fabio Cannavaro seen ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Draw . (REUTERS)

On Monday, the US State Department called on Russia to release “more than 150” political and religious prisoners. In this political climate, an appeal like that from the US would usually be the best way to ensure they remain behind bars. But the State Department may have picked a good moment: President Vladimir Putin could show largesse by pardoning the prisoners while the eyes of the world are on Russia and the World Cup.

The Russian human rights group Memorial, which maintains the most complete roster of Russian prisoners of conscience, published an updated version of its list on June 14, when the first World Cup game was played in Moscow. “Soccer is a game played by fair rules,” the group said. “It’s impossible to play fair while disrespecting human rights, fighting dissidence and tossing opponents behind bars.”

The list includes 108 people who have been imprisoned for their religious beliefs: Muslims convicted of terrorism without any evidence of real or intended violence, and Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientologists imprisoned after their churches were banned in Russia. The remaining 50 are in prison for supporting various political causes, notably opposition to the war in Ukraine. This group includes Oleg Sentsov, probably the best-known political prisoner in Russia. The Ukrainian movie director is serving a 20-year sentence for allegedly setting fire to the Crimea office of the pro-Putin United Russia party and planning to blow up a statue of Lenin. His case has been widely interpreted as a warning to other loyal Ukrainians in Crimea not to protest the peninsula’s annexation.

There could be hope. Putin has been willing to release an imprisoned opponent in conjunction with a major sporting event once before. In December 2013, just before the 2014 Sochi Olympics, he pardoned the oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had spent 10 years in confinement, ostensibly for tax fraud.

Yet it’s been three years since Russia had any kind of amnesty. Under Putin, they were usually decreed every couple of years. He was asked last year to declare an amnesty after his inevitable re-election in March. He promised to think about it, but then declined, possibly because of concerns about World Cup security.

A limited amnesty that would free the political prisoners, none of whom are even a little dangerous, would help Putin dispel the moral concerns of some people in the West about the World Cup being held in Russia. It would also create a precedent for FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, to request similar moves from other authoritarian countries that almost certainly will host the tournament in the future.

Sentsov’s family asked Putin to free him before the World Cup to end the hunger strike the imprisoned director began in mid-May. Putin has refused, insisting the Ukrainian had been convicted for plotting a terror attack in which “specific people could have been hurt”. He may be holding out for a prisoner exchange with Ukraine, which would be a public relations coup.

Putin is missing a chance to make the World Cup more than just a well-organised sports event. If his goal, at least to some extent, is to normalise his regime, there’s still time to release the prisoners and clear Memorial’s list.

Bloomberg View

First Published: Jun 22, 2018 07:24 IST