Disgraced Brezhnev relative set free

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RUSSIA'S President, Boris Yeltsin, beset by allegations of corruption within his inner circle, has pardoned Leonid Brezhnev's son-in-law halfway through a 12-year sentence for bribery and embezzlement in connection with the Soviet Union's Uzbekistan cotton scandal.

Itar-Tass news agency said Mr Yeltsin had signed a decree freeing Yuri Churbanov, a disgraced deputy interior minister whose 1988 trial caused a sensation as a symbol of Mikhail Gorbachev's hostility towards corrupt Brezhnev-era cronies. It gave no explanation for the pardon, saying only that Mr Churbanov, 56, had returned to Moscow from a prison camp in the Urals.

The timing is eccentric as Mr Yeltsin is increasingly vulnerable to accusations of being soft on corruption among his own close colleagues, such as Vladimir Shumeiko, the deputy prime minister, and Mikhail Poltoranin, the former information minister. The pardon is rich in irony as it was Mr Yeltsin who, as a pugnacious and ambitious populist from Sverdlovsk, took the lead in goading Mr Gorbachev into tackling corruption within the party and prosecuting people like Mr Churbanov in the 1980s.

His release follows another bizarre act of presidential magnanimity. Mr Yeltsin last week pardoned Sergei Parfyonov, a former officer of the OMON special police force who had been jailed in Latvia for four years for Soviet-era brutality. Released to Russia to serve the rest of his sentence, he was immediately set free by Mr Yeltsin and feted by hard-line Russian nationalists upon his arrival in Moscow as a free man on Friday. Mr Churbanov, by contrast, slipped into Moscow without fanfare. His marriage to Galina Brezhnev was loveless - punctuated by violence and infidelity - and his former colleagues deserted him long ago.

Mr Churbanov spent the last five years in a special labour camp for former policemen and top officials known as the 'cop zone' near Nizhy Tagil in the Urals. He was arrested in 1987 for involvement in a scandal centred on the Central Asian Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, ruled for 24 years by Sharaf Rashidov, a powerful Brezhnev baron. Mr Churbanov was accused of taking dollars 1m ( pounds 675,000) in bribes and of using his position in the Interior Ministry to cover up evidence of a huge scam involving state payment for shipments of non-existent cotton from Uzbekistan. He admitted to receiving a briefcase stuffed with dollars 200,000 but argued that he kept it only because it would have been 'awkward' to raise the issue with the Uzbek party boss. The trial was used to discredit Brezhnev cronies whom Mr Gorbachev wanted removed.