On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin showed his forgiving side, releasing members of the band Pussy Riot after more than a year of captivity.
Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were found guilty in August 2012 of "premeditated hooliganism performed by an organized group of people motivated by religious hatred or hostility" after they played a song criticizing Putin at Moscow's main Christ the Savior Cathedral in February 2012.
Human rights critics have long said the charges were trumped up and that the arrests were another example of how Putin quashes dissent. Both band members were convicted in a widely publicized trial and sentence to two years at a Russian penal colony (a third member, Yekaterina Samutsevich, had previously been released on humanitarian grounds).
At a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the Russian constitution, Putin announced the amnesty, saying he pitied the women.
"I feel sorry for Pussy Riot not for the fact that they were jailed, but for disgraceful behavior that has degraded the image of women," he said.
Members of the band fired back after their release, calling Putin “weak.”
This event follows last week's release of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Putin jailed Khodorkovsky ten years ago on when Putin accused him of fraud, freezing his assets in Yukos, then a major competitor to state-controlled energy giant Gazprom. Human rights groups believe that Khodorkovsky was jailed because he was a political rival of Putin's, and have long advocated for his release.
So is Putin suddenly developing a soft side? The answer is likely no.
The Sochi Winter Olympics are less than two months away, and criticisms of Russia's human rights record under Putin are increasing. Not only has Putin silenced political opponents, he and his government also recently passed anti-gay legislation that has drawn heat from rights groups and Olympians alike. Releasing the Pussy Riot members and Khodorkovsky are likely an attempt to soften that criticism ahead of the games and the media attention they bring.
Andrei Tolokonnikova, father of Nadezhda, said as much Monday, telling NBC News, "It is an absolutely cynical game of the central authorities."
Or perhaps Putin was simply trying to get off the naughty list a few days before Christmas. - Follow David Francis on Twitter @DavidCFrancis
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