Belarus frees political prisoners to ‘appease’ West
Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko has released six opposition leaders, including a former presidential rival, less than two months before presidential elections in a move hailed Sunday by the European Union.
A pardon for the six was revealed in a brief statement on Saturday evening. Among the freed opponents was Mikola Statkevich, a former presidential candidate imprisoned since 2010, much of which he spent in solitary confinement.
The release was welcomed by European officials, who said it was a long-overdue step towards normalizing ties after years of sanctions over Lukashenko’s political crackdown.
Observers said political expedi- ency propelled the move as well as the need for risk management as main ally Russia is sinking into recession.
On his release, a smiling Statkevich was given a hero’s welcome with flowers and balloons by around 200 people in Minsk.
He and the five others were considered by international rights groups as the last political prisoners in the country.
“I will continue to do what I have always done: work for a free Belarus,” Statkevich told the jubilant crowd as he embraced his wife and was even lifted into the air by supporters, some of whom shouted: “Mikola is our president!”
“I will not leave Belarus under any circumstances. I will fight for creating a normal country,” he said.
“Together we will make this country normal and free.”
The surprise move to pardon and release the six detainees in a decree that based the decision on “humane principles” comes as Lukashenko, in power since 1994, seeks reelection for a fifth term in an Oct. 11 election.
Their release took place a day after registration closed for potential candidates.
“This ‘humanism’ is tightly connected with the desire to improve relations with the West after the polls,” Minsk-based political analyst Alexander Klaskovsky said.
The move was hailed in Europe with EU foreign minister Federica Mogherini calling it a “long-sought step forward” in a joint statement with EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn. archist group that clashed with security officers.