TBILISI Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili vetoed on Thursday a bill that would free 3,500 prisoners, some considered political prisoners by the parliament dominated by his opponents, adding to a bitter power struggle in the former Soviet republic.
Georgia's parliament last week passed an amnesty law that would release many prisoners jailed under Saakashvili, whose party was ousted by an opposition coalition led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili in an October 1 election.
Ivanishvili became a prime minister after the vote, forcing a difficult cohabitation between the president and new parliament controlled by his rivals.
Saakashvili said he disagreed with parliament's decision to define 200 inmates as political prisoners and release them under the amnesty law -- along with others whom he described as hardened criminals.
"It means that there are more political prisoners just in Georgia than in the whole world all together," Saakashvili told a meeting with students on Thursday.
"Among prisoners pardoned by the parliament are paedophiles, and let them (parliamentarians) take responsibility for this decision as I'm not going to," he said. "Among them are those who were selling information to our enemies...as well as military officers charged with high treason."
Parliament needs 89 votes to override the president's veto, and the current parliamentary majority will have enough votes to do so.
Saakashvili's move appears to add to a power play between him and the new prime minister.
Since the election a raft of former government officials have been arrested, accused of abuse of power and other crimes.
The West has warned Ivanishvili, a political novice, not to lead a witch-hunt of officials loyal to Saakashvili, who in turn is criticised by opponents for monopolising power, mistreating critics and trampling on human rights.
Prisoners to be freed under the bill include those convicted for high treason, taking part in military riots, spying for Russia as well as robbery, fraud, theft, drugs and minor crimes, although critics of Saakashvili say many were victims of political persecution.
The law also calls for cutting the prison terms of more than 12,000 other criminals jailed for grave crimes.
Since first rising to power as a leader of the 2003 "rose" revolution, Saakashvili curbed petty corruption and implemented liberal economic reforms.
But he also cracked down on street protests against his rule, drawing accusations from opponents that he was resorting to authoritarian methods such as using police to punish critics.
Critics have voiced concerns over what they call heavy-handed tactics in Georgian jails under Saakashvili. A video showing torture, beating and sexual assault of prisoners was broadcast shortly before the election, triggering street protests that eventually helped Ivanishvili to win the vote.
(Reporting by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Roger Atwood)
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