Russian Duma approves amnesty of 120,000 inmates

(05-26-2000) 08:43 PDT MOSCOW (AP)

Russian legislators on Friday approved an amnesty for about 120,000 inmates in an effort to improve conditions in an overcrowded, disease-ridden prison system. The State Duma unanimously approved the measure, which applies to people who committed minor offenses.

Among those to be released will be inmates with tuberculosis-- about one-tenth of the prison population -- as well as war veterans, invalids, elderly people and pregnant women. Inmates are to be released after prison administrators decide who fits the requirements and process the paperwork.

Russia has a strict penal code and one of the largest prison populations in the world, with some 1 million people currently in custody. Suspects sometimes spend years in jail awaiting trial.

Prisons currently house up to five times the number of inmates they were designed to hold, forcing prisoners to share bunks and often sleep in shifts. The Justice Ministry said more than 4,000 inmates have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. TB afflicts about 100,000 prisoners, including thousands who have a drug-resistant, often-fatal strain. Up to 10,000 inmates are estimated to die of TB every year.

The amnesty is intended to mark the 55th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany, which was celebrated in Russia on May 9. Parliament has passed blanket amnesties before. The head of the Duma's legal affairs committee, Pavel Krasheninnikov, has advocated changes in Russia's penal code, including fines, bail and house arrest for many offenses now punished by prison terms.