Belarus releases political prisoners

By Jan Cienski in Warsaw

The authoritarian Belarusian government has released some political prisoners, as the European Union foreign ministers gather to discuss the reimposition of sanctions against the regime following flawed presidential elections in December and a crackdown on the opposition.

Vladimir Neklyayev, 64, a poet and a candidate in the elections, had been released from prison at the weekend and was now being held under house arrest, his family said. Mr Neklyayev was attacked and beaten up on the evening of the presidential poll, then bundled from hospital and taken to prison.

Former Belarusian presidential candidate Vladimir Neklyayev in Minsk shortly after his release from prison on Sunday

In a statement, his wife said that two KGB officers were staying with Mr Neklyayev in his Minsk flat, and that he was not allowed to receive visitors or to take telephone calls.

The regime also released Irina Khalip, the wife of former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov. They had been threatened with losing custody of their 3-year-old son, who was left in the care of his grandmother while his parents were being held in jail.

The Belarusian KGB said that five other activists would also be released.

The moves come as the EU discusses on Monday whether to impose travel bans on more than 100 senior members of the government of Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian president who has been in power since 1994. The US is also considering fresh sanctions.

Mr Lukashenko claims to have won almost 80 per cent of the vote in December's presidential election, while international monitors said that the election failed to meet international standards.

Hours after the polls closed, thousands of people gathered in central Minsk to protest against the conduct of the elections and to demand Mr Lukashenko's removal. The demonstration was dispersed by riot police and hundreds of people were arrested, including seven presidential candidates.

Some opposition activists, including Mr Sannikov, are still in prison, and two dozen of the regime's leading opponents face prison sentences of up to 15 years for taking part in the anti-government protests.

Mr Lukashenko had been promised aid and investment from the EU if he conducted a free and fair election, but on the eve of the vote he turned to Moscow, repairing previously strained ties, ensuring continued supplies of cheaper energy needed to keep Belarus's inefficient industries afloat.


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