TBILISI Georgia's parliament passed a law on Friday to pardon 3,500 prisoners, including those jailed under President Mikheil Saakashvili whose party was ousted from government in October.
The move appears to fit into a power play between the new prime minister, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, and Saakashvili.
Since the election, won by the six-party Georgian Dream led by Ivanishvili, a raft of former government officials have been arrested, accused of abuse of power.
The West has warned Ivanishvili, a political novice, not to lead a witch-hunt of officials loyal to Saakashvili, who in turn is criticized by opponents for monopolizing power, mistreating critics and trampling on human rights.
Prisoners to be pardoned under the bill include those convicted for high treason, taking part in military riots, spying for Russia as well as robbery, fraud, theft, drugs and minor crimes - although critics of Saakashvili say many of them they were victims of political persecution.
"By adopting this humane act we are giving a new chance to prisoners to get back to society as we are entering a new era in our country's history," said Ani Mirotadze, a Georgian Dream member of parliament.
Saakashvili's now-opposition United National Movement was absent during the vote to protest over arresting of former officials, however party lawmakers opposed the law saying it was dangerous to set so many criminals free.
Saakashvili must sign the law for it to take effect. His spokeswoman on Friday declined to say whether he would.
The law also calls for cutting the prison terms of more than 12,000 other criminals jailed for grave crimes.
Since first rising to power as a leader of the 2003 "rose" revolution, Saakashvili curbed petty corruption and implemented liberal economic reforms.
But he also cracked down on street protests against his rule, drawing accusations from opponents that he was resorting to authoritarian methods such as using police to punish critics.
Critics have raised concerns over what they say are heavy-handed tactics in Georgian jails under Saakashvili. A video showing torture, beating and sexual assault of prisoners was broadcast shortly before the election, triggering street protests that eventually helped Ivanishvili to win.
(Reporting by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Gabriela Baczynska and Alison Williams)