Russia parliament approves partial Chechen amnesty
By Jeremy Page
MOSCOW, June 6 (Reuters) - Russia's parliament gave final approval on Friday to a limited amnesty for fighters in separatist Chechnya that the Kremlin says will help end a decade of conflict in the region.
Critics have ridiculed the pardon offer which government officials say does not cover Chechens guilty of serious violence but does apply to at least 200 Russian soldiers, including some in prison for abuses in Chechnya.
Chechen guerrillas who hand in their weapons by September 1 will be pardoned. But foreigners and those guilty of serious violent crimes are not eligible and human rights groups say few fighters will give themselves up as there are insufficient guarantees they will be protected.
The State Duma, parliament's lower house, approved the amnesty the day after a woman suicide bomber ambushed a bus carrying Russian air force pilots near Chechnya, killing herself and at least 17 others.
Paramilitary police with sniffer dogs patrolled the Duma building, reflecting heightened security concerns after the attack -- the third in three weeks by women suicide guerrillas fighting for Chechen independence.
Duma member Oleg Morozov of the pro-Kremlin Russian Regions faction said the attacks appeared to be designed to scupper the amnesty and he praised the Duma's courage in approving it.
"The amnesty makes it possible to continue the political settlement in Chechnya," he said. "This is what the Chechen people want, this is what the president wants."
Russian President Vladimir Putin, preparing for an election next year, proposed the amnesty last month following a referendum in March, when official results showed overwhelming support for continued Russian rule.
The Kremlin has refused to negotiate with Chechen rebels but has instead devised a peace plan of which the amnesty is a major plank. The Duma, dominated by pro-Kremlin deputies, approved the measure with 352 in favour and 25 against.
One opponent, Sergei Mitrokhin of the liberal opposition Yabloko party, said the plan would only add to the violence.
"The amnesty will not make anyone give up their weapons," he said. "In current conditions, an amnesty is just a useless PR stunt."
As well rebels, the pardon covers some Russian soldiers and security officers. Interfax quoted Senior Military Prosecutor Alexander Savenkov as saying it applied to about 200 federal servicemen, including 50 already sentenced for crimes in Chechnya.