BAKU (Reuters) -- Azerbaijan's parliament has backed a motion by the president's wife to free hundreds of prisoners and cut sentences for thousands more on the eve of a referendum on lifting the country's two-term presidential limit.
The oil-producing former Soviet state votes on March 18 on whether to scrap the limit and give President Ilham Aliyev -- son of late long-serving leader Heydar Aliyev -- the chance to extend his rule beyond 2013.
Lawmakers denied the decision to pardon prisoners was timed to coincide with the referendum, which the opposition has branded a farce designed to install 47-year-old Aliyev as president for life.
"Every act of amnesty is a victory for the principles and ideas of humanism," Aliyev's wife Mehriban, a member of parliament, told the assembly.
"This policy was laid down by the great Heydar Aliyev in 1994, and as a result thousands of people have been freed to return to normal life."
The law covers more than 9,000 people, including 1,700, who will be released from prison. Others will see their sentences commuted or suspended sentences lifted.
"This act was prepared long ago," Ali Huseynov, who heads the parliamentary Legal Policy Committee, told Reuters. "It has nothing to do with the referendum."
Aliyev's rule since 2003 has coincided with rapid economic growth in the Caucasus state fuelled by oil and natuarl gas pumped west from reserves in the Caspian Sea.
But the opposition and rights groups say his grip on power owes as much to strict curbs on democracy and media freedoms, and the personality cult built around his father, who died in 2003.
Azerbaijan's authorities say they are committed to international standards of democracy, but that they have an obligation to protect the country from forces they say are trying to sow instability.
The opposition has called on voters to boycott the referendum, but analysts say it is almost certain to pass after Aliyev claimed 89 percent of the vote, when he won the last presidential election six months ago.