Lawmakers tentatively OK Putin's amnesty for Chechnya

MOSCOW -- The lower house of the Russian parliament gave initial approval Wednesday to President Vladimir Putin's proposed amnesty for Chechen rebels who lay down their arms, a measure that the Kremlin says is an important step toward peace and that critics say is virtually meaningless.

The bill, which the State Duma passed 354-18 in the first of three required readings, calls for amnesty for rebels who have given up arms over the past decade or who do so by Aug. 1. It would not cover foreigners fighting with the insurgents or Russian citizens guilty of murder, kidnapping, rape or other grave crimes.

It also would deny pardon to rebels found to have tried to kill federal police and servicemen. That could mean that any insurgent who took part in the Chechen wars could be subject to prosecution, critics say.

Top Russian human rights activists also have assailed the measure as potentially creating rich ground for corruption by giving the pro-Moscow Chechen administration and local security officials broad authority in implementing it.

Opponents also criticize the bill for including those guilty of pilfering government funds earmarked for rebuilding Chechnya and including Russian servicemen found guilty of non-grave crimes.

Aslambek Aslakhanov, a lawmaker elected from Chechnya, had introduced his own amnesty bill that referred only to the rebels. He withdrew his motion Wednesday and proposed an amendment that would broaden Putin's amnesty.

Aslakhanov that most of 500 rebels who had benefited from the previous amnesty in 1999 were later persecuted and called for more guarantees for those amnestied.

Heeding Putin's call to give top-priority attention to the bill, the Duma leaders planned to approve the amnesty Wednesday in all three readings -- a rush that some observers attributed to the Kremlin's desire to portray itself as peace-oriented at next week's summit with the European Union.

However, Putin's envoy to the Duma, Alexander Kotenkov, told lawmakers Wednesday that lawmakers could offer amendments to the bill and pass it by June 6 -- an apparent reflection of the controversy surrounding the measure.

Kotenkov also said that the amnesty could be extended from Aug. 1, as originally proposed, to Sept. 1 this year. He said that about 1,000 people, nearly 300 of them federal servicemen, could benefit from the amnesty.

Duma speaker Gennady Seleznyov called the amnesty an "attempt aimed at reconciliation and transfer to a peaceful life," but added the rebels could hardly be expected to "run in droves to lay down arms."

Putin proposed the amnesty after two suicide attacks last week in Chechnya that killed at least 78 people.

The attacks belied the Kremlin's frequent assertion that Chechnya was returning to normalcy, a claim that had increased after the reportedly overwhelming Chechen approval in March of a Kremlin-backed constitution. The constitution confirms Chechnya's status as part of Russia, and Moscow portrayed the vote as a key step toward peace.

At least six Russian servicemen were killed in the latest series of rebel attacks since Tuesday, said an official with the Moscow-appointed administration for Chechnya who asked not be named.

Early Wednesday, unidentified assailants also killed seven civilians in the northern village of Kalinovskaya, some of whom worked for the local pro-Moscow administration, the official said.

Also Wednesday, a Chechen resident blew himself up with an explosives-packed belt in neighboring Ingusehtia, the republic's Ministry for Emergency Situations said.

The ministry said the man set off the suicide blast after the car in which he was riding was stopped by police. There were no other injruies, the ministry said. Chechen rebels are widely believed to have infiltrated into Ingushetia.