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Surprise Pardons Follow Belarus Pledge To Release Political Prisoners

02.09.2011 12:48


Four Belarusian activists jailed in connection with last year's contentious presidential election have been freed after a pardon from President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

The releases come as EU officials say the Belarusian leader has pledged to release all political prisoners by mid-October.

They also follow a proposal by Lukashenka of roundtable talks with his political opponents, and raise hopes of improved relations between Minsk and the West.

Andrey Protasenya, a campaigner for opposition presidential candidate Yaroslav Romanchuk in Belarus's December 2010 vote, was one of the four pardoned activists, whose jail terms were tied to their involvement in protests against the longtime president's reelection.

Protasenya served four months in a high-security prison and was facing a three-year jail term when he was suddenly pardoned on September 1. The news came so quickly, he said, he barely had time to say goodbye to his cellmates.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Belarus Service, Protasenya welcomed his release but said attention should remain focused on the nearly 20 opposition activists still in jail for their role in the postelection protests.

"I'm out, but I can't say there's a feeling of intense happiness," Protasenya said. "Maybe that sensation is there, but it's mixed with the sensation that people are still back there in jail. I feel bad about that."

But that situation may be about to change as well. EU member Bulgaria has indicated that Lukashenka has agreed to release all of his country's political prisoners by the first half of October.

Political Headway?

The development comes after Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolay Mladenov met with Lukashenka last week in Minsk. Lukashenka had previously approached Lithuania and Italy to serve as intermediaries with the EU.

News of Lukashenka's pledge came days after he offered to meet with members of Belarus's political opposition and after authorities dropped protest-related charges against six other Belarusian activists.

The moves appear to be a sign the authoritarian leader is once again seeking to improve ties with the West.

With Belarus facing a mounting economic crisis, Lukashenka may be hoping for Western support to help quell rising alarm among ordinary Belarusians.

EU foreign ministers were expected to discuss the Belarus situation at their two-day meeting in Sopot in northern Poland, which opened within hours of the releases. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, speaking just ahead of the start of those talks, said ministers on September 3 would turn their attention to issues in Eastern Europe.

"I'm thinking about Belarus, where as you know we have taken a very strong position on the need to make sure that political prisoners are restored to freedom and rehabilitated properly, and that that country considers its relationship with the European Union," Ashton said.

Robert Golanski, a spokesman for European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek, welcomed the news of Lukashenka's pledge to release all political prisoners but warned against "premature enthusiasm."

"The president [Buzek] very strongly stands on the position that all political prisoners have to be unconditionally freed and returned to their families and friends," Golanski said. "Only then the European Union will be ready to treat Belarus as a serious partner willing to dialogue. Numerous previous declarations by the Belarusian regime proved to be unfounded and unsupported by concrete action. Thus the president's skepticism is entirely justified today."

Question Of Guilt

More than 700 people were detained during the protests against Lukashenka's reelection. Three of the former presidential candidates are among those still in jail.

A Lukashenka spokesman said the four men released on September 1-2 were pardoned because they had "recognized their guilt and the unlawful character of their actions" during the December unrest.

But Aleh Hnedchyk, who was facing four years in a high-security prison before his release, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service he refused to acknowledge his guilt and remained uncertain why he was pardoned.

"I wrote down that I didn't acknowledge their version of events. The next day they called me and said they needed me to write it again while they videotaped me. I said I wouldn't do it. They said that in that case I'd continue to stay there. That's how it went. But now, I don't know why," Hnedchyk said. "Perhaps when Lukashenka said yesterday that it was time to sit at the negotiating table -- this was probably [a kind of] negotiation, his first step toward that, in my opinion."

Hnedchyk expressed hope that all remaining political prisoners would be released within three weeks.

The other two released activists are Ales Kirkevich, the deputy chairman of the Young Front opposition group, and Dzmitry Daronin, a Minsk native arrested in March in connection with the protests.

Nine other opposition members convicted as part of the same case had earlier received presidential pardons.

written by Daisy Sindelar based on RFE/RL Belarus Service and agency reports; with contributions by Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels


Copyright (c) 2011. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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