The government has freed about 140 imprisoned dissidents, is considering pardoning about 140 more and has begun reviewing the criminal code with the idea of softening some provisions, a Soviet spokesman said today.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady Gerasimov said the government would like to see "fewer people behind bars and behind barbed wire."
He made no mention, however, of an amnesty for all those sentenced under laws prohibiting "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda."
Soviet dissidents have estimated that at least 1,500 political prisoners remain in Soviet labor camps, prisons or internal exile.
Issue Hampers Trade
Besides the Kremlin's avowed desire to reduce the prison camp population, the government may also be trying to deflect Western criticism of the Soviet human rights record. The issue has hampered better trade and political relations with the West.
The Soviets plan a weekend forum on peace and disarmament to be attended by political, business, cultural and religious figures from Western countries. They also are trying to win agreement at the Vienna conference on European security for a human rights conference in Moscow this spring.
In Washington, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said the Reagan Administration hopes the Soviet government "will follow up these recent moves with the release of more political prisoners and prisoners of conscience who unjustly remain in confinement or exile without imposing any requirements that they recant their previous activities and limit future activities in support of human rights.
Gerasimov told a news briefing today:
"The Soviet Union has been re-examining a number of cases, especially cases related to sentences on (Article 70) of the Soviet Criminal Code, concerning anti-Soviet propaganda.
"Many of those sentenced on that article have been addressing appeals for clemency, and they are being examined and, in many cases, being granted. To this date, about 140 people have been released."
He said that "approximately the same in number (of clemency requests) are pending."
Authorities Started Process
Dissident sources said it was the authorities, not the prisoners, who initiated the pardoning process.
Andrei D. Sakharov, who returned to Moscow from internal exile in Gorky in late December, said Saturday that 42 political prisoners had been freed. A Soviet official in Vienna said Monday that about 50 were released in a continuing review of dissident cases.
Gerasimov was asked how the government chose prisoners for early release.
"When an individual draws the government's attention to his or her case and promises to stop the behavior considered anti-Soviet propaganda, then this is being considered and as a rule his or her request is being granted," he said.
Bonner Expresses Pleasure
Sakharov's wife, Yelena Bonner, expressed pleasure in a telephone conversation over the news more prisoners are being released.
She dismissed the government's request for signed statements seeking a pardon. "Six months ago they (the prisoners) could have written any piece of paper they wanted to and still died in labor camp," she said.
Some of those released said they had not been required to sign statements or make promises about future activities. Others said they were asked to give vague assurances they would not pursue activities harmful to the state.