Amnesty for coup plotters adds to Moscow muddle

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The Independent Online
A FEW relatives came to Lefortovo prison yesterday with bundles of warm clothing to help inmates through the rest of winter. Others, including the wife of Alexander Rutskoi in an ankle-length fur coat, arrived through the snow expecting to celebrate a great and entirely legal escape from Russia's most secure jail.

The day before, the State Duma had ordered the prison gates thrown open to all of President Boris Yeltsin's most determined foes. But like most parliamentary resolutions and presidential decrees, this particular bit of paper, passed by a vote of 253- 67, has so far had only one clear result - a noisy row about what it really means.

Mikhail Poltoranin, formerly one of Mr Yeltsin's closest confidants, said it would 'open the Pandora's box of civil war'. Yegor Gaidar, the reformist standard bearer, voiced similar alarm during a visit to Germany. Mr Yeltsin's spokesman, Vyacheslav Kostikov, condemned the amnesty as immoral and spoke of a 'possible war of juridical interpretations'. Anatoly Sobchak, the Mayor of St Petersburg, called the move 'totally unacceptable and unlawful'. Communists meanwhile dismissed complaints as 'juridically illiterate'.

Covered by the amnesty are all those who plotted to seize the Russian White House in August 1991 and all those who last October refused to heed Mr Yeltsin's order to quit the building. They include Mr Rutskoi, Mr Yeltsin's former running mate and vice-president, and Ruslan Khasbulatov, speaker of the disbanded Supreme Soviet. Both have been in Lefortovo since surrendering to the army on 4 October.

The Prosecutor General, Alexei Kazannik, said he would act on the amnesty decision as soon as it had been gazetted. Mr Yeltsin's representative in parliament, Alexander Yakovlev, also raised no objections: 'From the legal point of view it fully corresponds to the constitution.'

Another Yeltsin aide, however, disagreed. Yuri Baturin, the Kremlin's National Security Adviser, said the Duma had the right to issue an amnesty but had overstepped its powers by granting what he said was a pardon, a prerogative of the executive alone. The distinction is fuzzy and could fuel months of inconclusive argument.

President Yeltsin made no direct mention of the issue in a more than 60-page state of the nation report, highlights of which he read to deputies yesterday. But he did take an oblique swipe: 'Public reconciliation is not all-forgiveness. Mercy is only mercy when it does not go against the law and moral standards.'