The Soviet Union has pledged to free by the end of the year all the people considered by the West to be political prisoners, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said Wednesday.
Kohl, appearing at a news conference after three days of talks with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, said he had firm assurances on the release, which could affect more than 150 people held in Soviet prisons, labor camps and psychiatric hospitals because of their political or religious beliefs.
“The Soviet side expressed their readiness to release by the end of the year all people whom the West considers to be political prisoners,” Kohl told reporters.
Such a move would be dramatic evidence of Gorbachev’s declared intention to enhance the civil rights of Soviet citizens. In the past, people who publicly protested or even criticized the policies of the ruling Communist Party risked prosecution and imprisonment for “anti-Soviet activities.”
Same Message to Shultz
In Washington, State Department spokesman Charles Redman said Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze had given Secretary of State George P. Shultz similar assurances last month. He said it is not yet clear just what Moscow means by the term “political prisoners.”
“We welcome this report as evidence that the Soviet leadership recognizes the importance of releasing all political prisoners now held in the Soviet Union,” Redman said. “This is something that we and our Western allies have long pressed for. We look forward to the actual release of all these prisoners.”
Redman said the U.S. government has given the Soviets lists containing the names of more than 200 individuals whom Washington considers political prisoners. He said the United States assumes that there are additional prisoners whose identities are unknown in the West.
Shevardnadze gave Shultz a list of about 40 persons who would be freed, but the list was not represented as being all-inclusive, he added.
Redman said the U.S. lists of political prisoners include “individuals who were convicted on political articles (of Soviet law), such as anti-Soviet slander, and those convicted on trumped-up charges.” He indicated that Moscow might balk at the suggestion that it has trumped up criminal charges for political reasons.
Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady I. Gerasimov said he could not confirm that such a promise as Kohl reported had been made by Gorbachev or other Soviet leaders.
Not on Agenda
Gerasimov said the question has generally been discussed at multilateral talks in Vienna on European security and cooperation and was not on the agenda of the Soviet-West German summit meeting here.
“If the West German side has been informed about events in Vienna, then I am not going to contradict that,” Gerasimov said.
He estimated that perhaps two dozen people were at present imprisoned under Soviet legislation prohibiting “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” or “defaming the Soviet state,” and he suggested their release could occur with the planned revision of two sections of the Soviet criminal code.
“If they are not abolished altogether,” he said of the two sections, “then they will be revised.”
Amnesty International, which has won the Nobel Peace Prize for its worldwide human rights efforts, estimates that about 150 people are being held in Soviet prisons, labor camps and psychiatric hospitals for “the nonviolent exercise of their fundamental human rights.”
Religious Dissidents, Too
A spokesman for Amnesty International said at the group’s headquarters in London that the figure includes not only political dissidents but also religious dissidents and conscientious objectors jailed for refusing to serve in the Soviet army.
“We have been demanding the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners, and we welcome the Soviet commitment reported by Chancellor Kohl,” the spokesman said. “We also hope that the releases will in fact be unconditional and there will be no further restrictions imposed on those who are freed.”
According to Amnesty International’s records, 314 such “prisoners of conscience,” as the organization describes them, have been released since February, 1987, as part of the broader political liberalization undertaken by Gorbachev.
They include political dissidents, religious dissenters and nationalists from the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, from the Ukraine and from other parts of the country.
When West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher was asked how many people might be involved in the release, he replied, “We are not in a position to give final figures.”
West Germany and other Western countries have generally submitted short “action lists” to the Soviet Union, hoping for step-by-step progress.
During the preparations for this week’s summit meeting, the first between Soviet and West German leaders in five years, a list of about 40 names was prepared, according to West German sources. But Kohl reportedly decided to press for a declaration of principle that would free all political prisoners.
“Kohl appears to have gone for the whole lot, and he may well have gotten it,” a senior West European diplomat said. “As stated by Kohl, this will be a very difficult commitment for the Soviet leadership to renege on.
‘So Much Good Will
“Even if Kohl somewhat overstated the Soviet promise, I don’t think Gorbachev would want to give the appearance of welshing on it or quibbling--not when there is so much good will at stake.”
Kohl said West Germany supports a controversial Soviet proposal for an international human rights conference in Moscow in 1991, provided that it is organized in the same way as were previous such conferences in Paris and Copenhagen.
Genscher said the release of Soviet political prisoners is an essential Western condition for such a conference.
Kohl emphasized his satisfaction with his talks with Gorbachev, and he said the Soviet leader will visit West Germany in the first half of next year.