Georgia starts freeing prisoners under amnesty

TBILISI Sun Jan 13, 2013 10:22am EST

1 of 7. Former prisoners, accompanied by officials, leave Gldani prison No. 8 in Tbilisi January 13, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/David Mdzinarishvili

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TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgia freed 190 inmates considered political prisoners by parliament on Sunday, under an amnesty that has deepened a power struggle in the former Soviet republic.

About 3,000 prisoners will eventually be released under the amnesty approved in December by parliament, which has been dominated by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili's governing coalition since an election on October 1.

President Mikheil Saakashvili tried to block the amnesty last month but parliament overturned his veto, increasing strains between him and the new government and parliament.

"Today is a historic day. The persecution of those who were arrested for political reasons is now over," Ucha Nanuashvili, the parliament-appointed human rights ombudsman, said outside Gldani prison No. 8 in the capital Tbilisi, where released prisoners were greeted by joyful relatives and friends.

Saakashvili said he disagreed with parliament's decision to define about 200 inmates as political prisoners and release them under the amnesty law, along with others whom he described as hardened criminals. He said on Saturday the amnesty could have "grave consequences".

Prisoners eligible for release include those convicted of high treason, taking part in military mutinies or spying for Russia as well as robbery, fraud, theft, drug trafficking and minor crimes.

"They are releasing Russian spies ... and they are releasing coup plotters," Saakashvili said.

The pro-Western Saakashvili accused Ivanishvili of being a Russian stooge during the campaign for the parliamentary election, in which his United National Movement lost its majority to Ivanishvili's opposition coalition.

Ivanishvili, a billionaire who made much of his fortune in Russia in the 1990s and was a stranger to the Georgian political scene until 2011, became prime minister in late October.

Russian forces drove deep into Georgia in a five-day war in 2008, and the neighboring former Soviet republics have not reinstated diplomatic ties severed over the conflict.

Saakashvili, who was propelled to power in nonviolent street protests in 2003 known as the Rose Revolution, is due to step down after a presidential election in October in which he is barred from running by term limits.

Saakashvili is widely credited with curbing petty corruption and implementing liberal economic reforms.

But he has also cracked down on street protests against his rule, drawing accusations from opponents that he was resorting to authoritarian methods.

Critics have voiced concerns over what they call heavy-handed tactics in Georgian jails under Saakashvili.

A video showing torture, beating and sexual assault of inmates at Gldani prison was broadcast shortly before the election, triggering protests that helped Ivanishvili win.

Since the election several former government officials have been arrested and accused of abuse of power and other crimes.

The West has warned Ivanishvili not to conduct a witch-hunt against officials loyal to Saakashvili.

(Additional reporting by Nino Ivanishvili; Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Andrew Roche)

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