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Russian Parliament Approves Amnesty for Chechen Fighters - 2003-05-21

The Russian Parliament has tentatively approved an amnesty for rebel fighters in Chechnya that had been proposed by President Vladimir Putin.

The Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, approved the amnesty by a vote of 354-18 after several hours of debate.

But the bill still has to go through two more readings by the legislature, and deputies can add amendments to it.

This is perhaps a measure of doubts some in the Duma felt about the amnesty, which President Putin proposed just a week ago.

One catch is that the amnesty would not apply to anyone involved in serious crimes in a region, which has seen almost constant warfare for the past eight years.

That could mean local Russian commanders would have some leeway in determining what constitutes serious crimes, leading to doubts that many Chechen fighters would accept the offer, which critics say Mr. Putin wants for political reasons.

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."

Mr. Kremenyuk says the timing of the amnesty may also have to do with a major international summit meeting to be held just over 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,'" he explained.

Human rights groups have also criticized the fact that the amnesty also covers Russian servicemen, some of whom have been charged with abuses during their time in Chechnya.