The announcement in Russia that Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil tycoon, and the two Pussy Riot demonstrators may be freed soon, along with thousands of other Russians, is good news. But decreeing clemency, a move initiated by President Vladimir Putin, is not the same as acknowledging that these prisoners were improperly incarcerated to begin with.
The Russian parliament approved an amnesty bill proposed by Mr. Putin that would apply to several thousand inmates, including Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, members of the band Pussy Riot who received two-year sentences for performing a “punk prayer” in Moscow’s main cathedral, and many who were arrested after an antigovernment protest last May.
As he concluded his annual marathon news conference on Thursday, Mr. Putin was asked about Mr. Khodorkovsky, once the richest man in Russia as the chief executive of Yukos Oil, whose imprisonment since 2003 has been widely condemned as political score-settling. To the surprise of all, Mr. Putin announced that Mr. Khodorkovsky had requested a pardon and that he planned to grant it.
In the Russian narrative, Mr. Putin was practicing a venerable tradition of freeing prisoners for special occasions — in this case, the 20th anniversary of the post-Soviet Russian Constitution. No doubt he was also trying to clear the slate of controversial cases in advance of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, which are drawing Western protests in connection with Russia’s gay “propaganda” laws.
In pardoning the prisoners, Mr. Putin gave no indication that they may have been wrongfully tried and imprisoned, nor that more people will not be treated similarly in the future. Mr. Putin’s press spokesman suggested that Mr. Khodorkovsky’s request for a pardon — which the prisoner’s lawyers could not confirm — was an acknowledgment of guilt.
Unless they are followed by a strengthening of the rule of law, these amnesties are mostly an imperial gesture, not a sign that justice has been served.