Russia Refuses to Free Pregnant Prisoner

Am imprisoned lawyer who has twice been denied parole despite the fact that she is about to give birth to her third child has become the latest rallying point for human rights in Russia.

The plight of Svetlana Bakhmina, 39, has prompted an online petition urging Russian President Dmitri Medvedev to pardon her and "demonstrate to the people of the Russian Federation and to the whole world that mercy and respect of human rights are the cornerstones of a strong, civilized state."

The petition has even attracted more than 86,000 signatures, and the verbal support of former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev.

"Bakhmina has already served a large part of her sentence and as far as I know she has two boys and on top of it, according to the press, she is due to give birth in December," Gorbachev told the Russian news website Izbrannoe.ru. "What's the point of holding her behind bars?

"It seems to me that the President Medvedev in this case could actually use his right to pardon. I would welcome this," Gorbachev said.

Bakhmina was sent to jail for her involvement in the now-notorious case against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former Russian oligarch who was once the richest man in the country.

Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003 on charges of fraud, but many Russians believe he was actually being punished by the state for involving himself in opposition politics.

Masha Lipman, editor of Carngie Moscow's Pro et Contra journal, told ABC News, "Bakhmina is not a political figure… She may be described as a side effect, as collateral damage in the campaign against Khodorkovsky… Her guilt is at best guilt by association."

Bakhmina served as the deputy head of the legal department of Khodorkovsky's now defunct Yukos oil company and was found guilty of embezzlement and tax evasion. She was sentenced to six-and-a-half years and has served more than half of her sentence. Under Russian law she is now eligible for parole but so far her two appeals for release have been rejected.

The publicity and the criticism has failed to convince Medvedev to pardon Bakhmina, but earlier this week it was revealed that Bakhmina has been moved from her prison in Mordovia, an area of Central Russia well known for its gulag Soviet prisons, to a maternity clinic near Moscow.

Vladimir Lukin, Russia's human rights commissioner, refused to comment to ABC News on why Bakhmina has not been pardoned. He said, "All that we can tell you is that she is fine, everything is in order and she doesn't want to be bothered."

While many Russians sympathize with Bakhmina's plight, others are unforgiving and feel that she was part of a machine that stole from Russia and that she should serve her full sentence.

A recent survey by the Levada Center found that 36 percent of Russians said that Bakhmina should be released, but 16 percent said that the court was right to refuse her appeal. Nearly half of the country, 48 percent, said that they did not have any opinion on the matter.

"To not release a pregnant woman with two children on parole, especially when it's contrary to routine practice, makes this regime look highly inhuman," said Lipman.

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