A Soviet spokesman confirmed yesterday that a widespread release of political prisoners is under way. The releases seem destined to include most prisoners held under one of the main statutes used against political prisoners.
By coupling news of the releases with references to a ``softening'' of the criminal code, the Soviet leadership appears once again to be signaling the seriousness of its intention to remove some of the constraints on freedom of expression.
So far, 140 political prisoners have been granted clemency, Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady Gerasimov said yesterday. He added that a similar number of cases were being considered by the Supreme Soviet's Presidium, the country's top legislative committee.
The releases are conditional, however: Prisoners must sign a statement agreeing not to engage in further ``anti-Soviet propaganda.'' If they give this promise, their request is considered ``and as a rule'' granted, Mr. Gerasimov said at a press conference. At least one prominent dissident, Joseph Begun, has so far refused to sign such a statement, and is apparently not being considered for release.
The releases were an extension of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of democratization, Gerasimov said. They were also part of a process of modifying the Soviet criminal code in favor of a ``simplification and a certain softening'' of the code, he said.
The idea of the changes was ``that we may have fewer people behind bars and barbed wire,'' he said. A government commission, including representatives of the justice and interior ministries, is reviewing the criminal code, including capital punishment, he said.
A spokeswoman for the London-based human rights group Amnesty International said the reference to capital punishment was ``unprecedented.''
Gerasimov said the government was now applying ``the highest form of punishment'' - a euphemism for capital punishment - with increasing rarity. Recently, he said, it had been carried out only in the case of premeditated murder.
Meanwhile, Gerasimov said the commission on the criminal code was tending toward a reduction of the number of offenses punishable by imprisonment. But, the spokesman noted, this approach was not without opposition.
``There are some comrades who consider that the harsher [the punishment] the better,'' he said. Soviet sources have said recently that many Communist Party rank-and-file members regularly call for a tough line against dissidents.
The current tendency of the Soviet government is to broaden the number of crimes that are punishable by suspended sentences rather than imprisonment, Gerasimov said.
He did not say whether Article 70, under which the pardoned dissidents had been imprisoned, would henceforth be punished by suspended sentences. When asked if the article might be abolished, he said he did not want to ``prejudge'' the issue.
The pardoned dissidents had all been convicted under Article 70 of the criminal code of the Russian Republic, which deals with ``anti-Soviet propaganda.''
The article currently carries a maximum sentence of seven years' imprisonment and five years in exile for first offenders.
The political prisoners' cases had been reviewed in two batches by the Presidium, and approved on Feb. 2 and Feb. 9, respectively. Some of the eight or so names mentioned during the press conference had already been announced last weekend by human rights activists Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner.
Western estimates generally put the number of Soviet political prisoners at more than 1,000.
Amnesty International has designated 540 Soviet political detainees as prisoners of conscience, and the Amnesty spokeswoman said the organization was aware of 150 people imprisoned under Article 70.