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Georgia begins freeing political prisoners under amnesty

Georgia's parliament has freed 190 inmates considered political prisoners under an amnesty strongly opposed by President Mikhail Saakashvili. The move highlights the growing divide between the president and parliament.

epa03533167 Former prisoners react as they leave the Gldani prison in Tbilisi, Georgia, 13 January 2013. EPA/ZURAB KURTSIKIDZE +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

Georgien lässt Gefangene frei

Many of those who were freed Sunday were arrested during anti-Saakashvili protests in May 2011. Others had been convicted of trying to overthrow the government or spying for Russia, with whom Georgia cut off diplomatic relations after a brief war in 2008.

Around 3,000 prisoners will be released in total under the amnesty, which was approved by parliament in December.

"Today is a historic day," said Ucha Nanuashvili, the parliament-appointed human rights ombudsman, outside the Gldani prison number 8 in the capital Tbilisi. "The persecution of those who were arrested for political reasons is now over."

Presidential bid to block amnesty

Inmates 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.

Saakashvili tried to block the amnesty last month, but parliament, which is dominated by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili's governing coalition, overturned his veto. The president's party ruled Georgian politics for nine years until losing control of parliament in an October 1 election.

On Saturday, Saakashvili said that the amnesty could have "grave consequences."

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

But the head of parliament's human rights committee, Eka Beselia, described the prisoners as the president's "personal convicts" who had been imprisoned for opposing his government.

dr/rc (Reuters, AP)