Belarus Frees 7 Since Post-Election Crackdown


MOSCOW - In what appears to be a last-minute bid to mollify European leaders, who are preparing to impose punishing sanctions this week against President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko and his government, Belarus has begun releasing opposition political figures imprisoned since a large antigovernment protest last month.

At least seven opposition leaders have been let out of prison in recent days, according to family members and Belarusian news media. Among them was Vladimir Neklyaev, a former presidential candidate, who was whisked to prison directly from his hospital bed after being beaten unconscious amid a crackdown that followed last month's presidential elections.

Also freed was Irina Khalip, a respected investigative journalist, though her husband, another former presidential candidate, remains in jail. The authorities had threatened to take custody of Ms. Khalip's 3-year-old son, Danil, but then backed down.

The security services, still called the K.G.B. in Belarus, a former Soviet republic, have placed Ms. Khalip and Mr. Neklyaev under house arrest, keeping them under 24-hour surveillance.

This week, the European Union is expected to complete plans on sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, against Mr. Lukashenko and dozens of other officials. European leaders have said repeatedly that only the unconditional release of all those jailed after last month's elections could avert the sanctions.

Three former presidential candidates are among about two dozen opposition leaders who remain in jail. They face up to 15 years in prison for their roles in organizing the protest after the elections on Dec. 19.

That day as the polls closed, thousands of people angered over Mr. Lukashenko's apparently fraudulent victory converged on a central square in the capital, Minsk, calling for the president's ouster. Mr. Lukashenko, a former collective farm boss who has ruled for 16 years, won with almost 80 percent of the vote, though independent observers documented widespread falsification of the ballot count.

Mr. Lukashenko has said the protest, which was largely nonviolent, was an attempt, backed by Western powers, to overthrow his government, charges European leaders have called absurd.

Last week, he appeared to mock European officials, telling them to stay out of his country's affairs and almost daring them to impose sanctions.

"Are you trying to frighten me with sanctions? Well God be with you." Mr. Lukashenko said in remarks posted on his Web site. "I have lived under visa restrictions for probably 10 years and am still alive and well."

Still, he said he remained open to dialogue and possible compromise.

Over the years, the United States and the European Union have employed various tools to pressure Mr. Lukashenko to ease his authoritarian grip. And sanctions against the president and his government have won the release of political prisoners in the past.

Looking somewhat disheveled, but otherwise upbeat, Mr. Neklyaev, a poet and leader of the Tell the Truth movement, arrived at his apartment in Minsk on Saturday evening after spending nearly six weeks in jail.

"Good evening, everyone. I'm glad that you've come," he said as he dashed by applauding supporters through the front door of his building in video posted to the Web site of Radio Liberty's Belarusian service.

Though out of prison, Mr. Neklyaev and the others are hardly free. They still face lengthy prison terms and are under heavy surveillance.

Lyutsina Khalip, the mother of Irina Khalip, the freed journalist, said her daughter was practically imprisoned at home.

"She is not allowed to speak with anyone, no one is allowed to come over, she is not allowed to speak on the phone," Ms. Khalip said.

In addition, two K.G.B. agents are stationed inside the apartment at all times, she said.

It was unclear whether the authorities planned to release Irina Khalip's husband, Andrei Sannikov, a prominent opposition leader, or any others still in jail.

For now, Ms. Khalip said, her daughter was making up for lost time with her son, who she said was "completely overjoyed" by his mother's return.


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