Belarus strongman frees jailed US citizen


By Valery Kalinovsky

MINSK - Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko Tuesday ordered the release of a US citizen whose imprisonment last year strained ties with Washington, as he called for the resumption of full diplomatic relations.

Emanuel Zeltser, a lawyer who had been jailed in Belarus since March 2008 in murky circumstances, was released from jail late Tuesday, his lawyer Dmitry Goryachko told AFP.

A US embassy official met Zeltser at the jail's gates and drove him to Minsk, he added.

Lukashenko signed a decree pardoning Zeltser, after meeting a US congressional delegation, a presidential spokesman said.

Zeltser, a Russian-born lawyer and expert on money laundering who once testified before the US Congress on Russian organised crime, had been arrested on landing at Minsk airport last year.

Reacting to the decision, US State Department spokesman Ian Kelly on Tuesday told reporters in Washington: "We welcome this news."

But Kelly added: "We still have other concerns of course with some of the actions of the Belarussian government."

Washington was reviewing policy toward Belarus, he said.

The State Department has been fiercely critical of Belarus' human rights record, calling it "very poor" in a report in February.

Zeltser had been sentenced to three years in prison on charges of industrial espionage and using forged documents.

The United States earlier raised concerns about Zeltser's health and asked for his release on humanitarian grounds, an appeal that Belarus initially rejected.

Supporters of Zeltser have alleged that his arrest was related to his work on the disputed inheritance of Georgian billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili, who died in London in February 2008.

At the time of his arrest, Zeltser was representing Joseph Kay, a relative of Patarkatsishvili who claims to be the billionaire's heir.

Earlier this month Zeltser went on a hunger strike to protest his situation, a move that lawyers feared could worsen his already poor health.

Lukashenko, whose regime was once dubbed "Europe's last dictatorship" by Washington, made the surprise decision to pardon Zeltser after a rare visit to Belarus by a US congressional delegation.

One member, Senator Benjamin Cardin, told reporters after the meeting that Lukashenko had promised to free Zeltser as early as Tuesday evening.

In the meeting with US lawmakers - the highest-ranking delegation from the US Congress to visit Belarus in more than a decade - Lukashenko voiced hope for a full restoration of ties, provided Washington lifted sanctions.

"We are ready to return to talks about a full restoration of a mutual diplomatic presence on the condition of the legal cancellation of sanctions against our country," Lukashenko said.

"Belarus is very interested in a constructive exchange of views with the United States on all questions which have been frozen for the last 10 years."

The US delegation raised concerns about freedom of speech and democracy in the closed-doors part of their meeting with Lukashenko, Cardin said.

"We explained to the president our view that Belarus does not conform to international standards in these areas," said Cardin, a member of US President Barack Obama's Democratic Party.

Besides Cardin, the group of US lawmakers included Representative Alcee Hastings and Senator Richard Durbin, the Senate's number two Democrat.

Lukashenko in recent months has sought to develop ties with the West and has launched numerous verbal attacks against Russia, after years of being a staunch ally of Moscow.

Relations between Belarus and the United States hit a low last year when the US ambassador left the country and several other US diplomats were forced out amid a row over US economic sanctions on state oil and chemicals firm Belneftekhim.



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