The next step has been taken in what some observers say is Russian President Vladimir Putin's bid to burnish his country's reputation before February's Winter Olympic Games in Sochi:
"Russian authorities on Thursday issued visas to seven of 30 members of a Greenpeace ship crew that allow them to leave the country after dropping criminal charges against them over a protest outside an Arctic oil rig," The Associated Press writes. "Greenpeace said Thursday other foreign members of the crew were expected to get their exit visas soon."
The activists were arrested in September, as we reported at the time. They were aboard a Greenpeace vessel, the Arctic Surprise, near an oil and gas drilling facility in waters of the Russian Arctic. Greenpeace opposes the drilling.
Greenpeace says the ship was in international waters. The Russian Coast Guard says the Arctic Surprise was a "genuine threat to the security of the Russian oil and gas complex."
As the AP reminds readers:
"The 30 people ... spent two months in jail before they were granted bail in November. Hooliganism charges against the crew were later dropped after Russia's parliament passed an amnesty law that was seen as an attempt by the Kremlin's to assuage the criticism of Russia's human rights record before the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February."
Earlier this week, two members of the punk rock band Pussy Riot were released from prison after being behind bars for nearly two years. They had been sent to prison for being part of an anti-Putin performance in Moscow's main Russian Orthodox cathedral.
Last week, oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was set free after nearly a decade in jail. A critic of Putin, Khodorkovsky was tried and convicted on charges of tax evasion and embezzlement. His supporters say he, like the Pussy Riot members, was really a political prisoner.
Last week on All Things Considered, NPR's Corey Flintoff spoke about what critics say is Putin's real reason for allowing his critics to be released:
"The thinking goes that commentators on human rights will have less to talk about during the [Olympic] games if some of the most high profile prisoners are out of jail. Masha Lipman, an editor and analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, says the way these decisions were made shows that Russians can't rely on justice from their institutions.
" 'Mercy is maybe complimentary to justice, but mercy cannot replace justice, and this only emphasizes the fact that in Russia if you fall victim to injustice and unfair treatment, it can only be the will from above that can rescue you,' Lipman says."