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Russian Duma Debates Amnesty for Chechen Rebels - 2003-05-21

The Russian parliament is debating an amnesty for rebel fighters in Chechnya proposed by President Vladimir Putin. Approval of the measure is expected, but few independent observers believe the move will have much of an impact on the course of the long-running war in the breakaway region.

Just a week ago, President Putin proposed a conditional amnesty for Chechen fighters and asked the parliament, or Duma, to give it priority attention.

Calling the proposal an act of humanism, Mr. Putin said Chechen fighters who agree to lay down their arms by August 1 will not be prosecuted.

But there is a catch. The amnesty would not apply to anyone suspected of having committed serious crimes, an exception that could be interpreted in different ways by Russian officials in the war-torn region.

Some analysts say Russian officers have long acted with near impunity in Chechnya, and that is unlikely to change as a result of the amnesty.

"There is no guarantee that the field commanders would obey the orders from Moscow if Moscow declares the amnesty," said Viktor Kremenyuk, an analyst with the USA-Canada institute in Moscow. "The local commanders, local police chiefs, the local chiefs of the security forces, they will disregard them and continue some campaign of revenge against the Chechens."

On Tuesday, the prominent Russian human rights group, Memorial, condemned the amnesty as unrealistic, saying that anyone involved in the war would have no reason to trust the authorities.

They describe the idea as simply a way for President Putin to show he is attempting to end the war, building on a referendum held in March, which the Kremlin claims proved that most Chechens want to remain a part of Russia.

Mr. Kremenyuk says the timing of the amnesty may also have to do with a major international summit meeting to be held just more than a week from now in Russia's second city, St. Petersburg.

"Mr. Putin wants to have something in his pocket when he goes to Petersburg to meet the other leaders, to say, 'Look, I am good on Chechnya, this is my record, we have carried out the referendum, we are facing elections, now an amnesty is declared,'" Mr. Kremenyuk said.

Various world leaders have long urged the Russian president to hold peace talks with Chechen rebel leaders, something he is so far declined to do.

Mr. Putin says the Chechen conflict is part of the global war on terrorism, amid evidence that some foreign fighters are involved in the war.

Last week two suicide bombings killed more than 75 people in Chechnya, just as Mr. Putin was announcing his amnesty proposal.