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Belarus' Lukashenko vows to free all election protesters

RIA Novosti

15:42 02/09/2011 MOSCOW, September 2 (RIA Novosti) - Belarus' authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko has said he will pardon all people jailed for taking part in mass protests to denounce alleged vote-rigging in last year's presidential elections.

A number of protesters have already been granted amnesty following heavy international criticism, including most recently the release of four activists on Thursday.

Belarus seeks to patch up ties with the West which have sunk to new lows after a brutal crackdown on protesters following the December 19 vote.

Both the European Union and United States condemned the crackdown and imposed a visa ban and an asset freeze on Lukashenko shortly after he was sworn in for a fourth term in office in January.

He has been in power in Belarus for the past 16 years.

Lukashenko is said to have announced the decision during talks with Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolai Mladenov last week.

"Lukashenko will release all political activists by the beginning of October as part of efforts to improve relations with the EU," Mladenov said in a letter to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, according to the Russian opposition website

Lukashenko also pledged to hold regular meetings with opposition activists to discuss the future of the former Soviet state, which is reeling from a severe financial crisis, and devalued its currency by 36 percent in May.

Lukashenko, labeled by the White House as "Europe's last dictator," collected nearly 80 percent of the vote in the December election.

International observers said the contest was deeply flawed.

Thousands of people gathered in central Minsk on election night calling for a rerun of the elections but were dispersed by riot police and troops who bludgeoned protesters and arrested hundreds.

Dozens were later handed lengthy jail terms.

Andrei Sannikov, a high-profile opposition leader and presidential contester, was given a five-year sentence on charges of organizing the December riots. He was pardoned last month, along with eight others.

Belarus' leading human rights group Vyasna was not amused by today's announcement, saying it was just an attempt to curry favor from the EU.

"This is not the first attempt to trade in political prisoners. It is called 'dialogue with the EU,'" a Vyasna spokesperson told RIA Novosti. "We saw the same thing in 2008."

"Unless changes are made to the legal system, and to its operation, we may find ourselves with another batch of political prisoners in a couple of months' time."

Hundreds of people were arrested throughout Belarus in July after street protests against Lukashenko and his economic policies.

Lukashenko said the protests were an attempt to ferment a revolution.

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