Be­larus frees po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers to ‘ap­pease’ West

The China Post - - INTERNATIONAL - BY TA­TIANA KALINOVSKAYA

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.

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