Belarus frees jailed ex-presidential candidate

MINSK: Belarus' KGB said Saturday it has released former presidential candidate Vladimir Neklyayev and the wife of another candidate from jail, both of whom had been in prison since massive election night protests more than a month ago.

Neklyayev and Irina Khalip were arrested on Dec 19 as a demonstration broke out against alleged fraud in that day's presidential election.

Neklyayev was severely beaten as he tried to lead supporters to the protest, while Khalip, the wife of candidate Andrei Sannikov, was arrested after riot police broke up the protest. Her husband was also beaten and arrested and remains in jail as do two other ex-candidates, Nikolai Statkevich and Ales Mikhalevich.

In all, seven candidates were arrested along with some 700 protesters.

The KGB said in a statement that Neklyayev and Khalip had been released but were now under house arrest because the investigation into their cases has been completed. The other arrested candidates face charges that could bring prison sentences of up to 15 years.

The arrests brought widespread criticism from Western Europe and the United States. Both the European Union and Washington have raised the prospects of sanctions against Belarus in response.

Under President Alexander Lukashenko - in office since 1994 - Belarus has retained a Soviet-style state-controlled economy while also repressing opposition activists and free news media. The West has pushed for reforms and offered economic incentives, but Lukashenko has rebuffed them, choosing to tilt strongly toward Russia, on which the country relies for oil and natural gas.

Lukashenko was declared the winner of the December election with nearly 80 percent of the vote. But international observers strongly criticized the count.

Ales Belyatsky, leader of the Belarusian human rights group Vesna, said he believed "Lukashenko was frightened by the stern threat of sanctions from the West and decided to ease the situation a little."


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