Under pressure from the West, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday defended his country's human rights record, claiming that Russia has no political prisoners and dismissing criticism of a draconian bill that hikes fines for unsanctioned street rallies.
Grilled by a reporter about his crackdown on the opposition, Putin said at an EU summit in St. Petersburg that the country's controversial law on rallies is "democratic" and claimed it was similar to legislation elsewhere in Europe.
Putin served as Russia's president for eight years before stepping down in 2008 due to term limits. He returned to the Kremlin in May amid massive street protests against his tightening grip on power. Small protests have lingered, and Putin's party has submitted draft legislation that would increase fines 200-fold for those taking part in unsanctioned rallies. The bill is expected to be voted into a law on Tuesday.
Asked about the Russian opposition's demand to free political prisoners, Putin said he has no knowledge of people who could be described that way. Opposition leaders have circulated a list of 40 people they describe as political prisoners.
Putin's critics often name former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, convicted of tax evasion in 2005 and embezzlement in 2010, as Russia's No. 1 political prisoner. An independent Russian probe into Khodorkovsky's 2010 prosecution, commissioned by former President Dmitry Medvedev, found no grounds for his conviction, but stopped short of siding with critics who said that Khorkovsky was punished for harboring political ambitions.
Putin on Monday underscored that the European Court for Human Rights "found no political motives" in the charges brought against Khodorkovsky. Putin, however, seemed to refer only to Khodorkovsky's 2005 conviction. The European court hasn't passed any ruling on the tycoon's second conviction.
"As for other cases of this kind," Putin said, referring to other alleged political prisoners, "the list of those people should be clarified."
Putin made the remarks after a meeting with European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.
Their summit follows Putin's visit to Germany and France last weekend when German Chancellor Angela Merkel pressed Putin to allow "democratic diversity" to develop in Russia. Putin has also widely been criticized in the West for his refusal to strongly condemn Syrian President Bashar Assad's brutal crackdown.