Putin frees foes ahead of Sochi Olympics

MOSCOW (CNN) — Less than two months before the world focuses on Russia for the Sochi Olympics, President Vladimir Putin is handing out “get out of jail free” cards.

riotA new amnesty law introduced by Putin allowed two members of Russian punk band Pussy Riot to leave prison on Monday, two months before the end of their two-year sentences for a performance critical of the president.

In addition, 30 Greenpeace demonstrators could go free under the amnesty law passed by Russian lawmakers last week that could affect 25,000 prisoners.

Putin also pardoned former oil tycoon and Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had been jailed since 2003 and was convicted in 2005 of tax evasion and fraud.

It all is part of a public relations offensive by Putin, who has solidified his political dominance in Russia and now seeks to improve the country’s image ahead of the Olympic Games that begin Feb. 7 in the Black Sea city of Sochi.

The amnesty law and the Khodorkovsky release “are to a certain extent tied to the upcoming Olympics,” said CNN foreign affairs correspondent Jill Dougherty.

Russia’s international image has suffered from an anti-gay law passed under Putin, with threats of protests and boycotts at the Olympics over its bans on “homosexual propaganda.”

In addition, the jailing of Khodorkovsky harmed foreign investment in Russia because it smacked of political repression, Dougherty noted.

“Russia wants to improve its image and increase investment in the country,” she said, adding that Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment “caused some businesses to think twice about” getting involved in Russia.

Russia has faced international criticism for its treatment of Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, with countries including the United States accusing it of “selective prosecution” and abuse of the legal system.

He became both a political and economic threat to Putin by wanting to create a commercial oil pipeline that would break the government monopoly on the industry and by funding opposition politicians, Dougherty said.

Khodorkovsky, who was due for release next year, wrote Putin a letter from prison that asked for early release because his mother was ailing. He insisted the letter contained no admission of guilt, and Putin said the pardon was on humanitarian grounds.

Upon his release, Khodorkovsky left the country and has said he won’t continue his political activities against the Russian government.

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