American prisoner released in Belarus

By: Nick Mackenzie.

At the urging of US Senator Benjamin L Cardin (D-MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (US Helsinki Commission) and a seven-member Congressional delegation in Minsk today, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka signed official documents releasing American prisoner Emanuel Zeltser.

Mr Zeltser has been in a Belarus prison since March 2008 after being convicted in a secret trial. Arrangements are being made for Zeltser to be released tonight. Doctors have said that Mr Zeltser's life depends on his release. The Helsinki Commission has consistently advocated for his release due to concerns over Zeltser's health and the fact he was convicted of espionage in a closed trial.

Despite the gesture, Chairman Cardin reminded President Lukashenka that improvements in human rights and democracy in Belarus remain critical to changing the US relationship with the former Soviet state.

"We welcome the release of Emanuel Zeltser on humanitarian grounds. However, we made it clear to President Lukashenka today that the only way to improve the relationship between our countries is for him to increase political freedom and respect for human rights," said Chairman Cardin. "Belarus should make progress on the conditions laid out in the Belarus Democracy Act if the country is to see any changes in US sanctions here."

The delegation also met today with political activists - several of whom have been imprisoned for opposing President Lukashenka. Political opposition, non-government organizations, and independent media lack freedom in Belarus. In response to an expansion of US sanctions against Belarus, President Lukashenka kicked out approximately 30 diplomats from Minsk last year. The US Embassy is now down to a staff of five. The delegation today called for Belarus to allow for an increased US diplomatic presence.

"There is much President Lukashenka can do to put Belarus back on a path toward positive engagement with the United States. One start would be to restore staffing of our embassy in Minsk, but more importantly the country needs to undergo political reform, including changes to make the 2011 elections free and fair," said Senate Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL).

"The Helsinki Commission and the U.S. Congress have a long standing interest in Belarus' democracy and independence. All the talking in the world doesn't change the fact that President Lukashenka must act. The ball is in his court," said Commission Ranking Minority Member Smith, the author of the Belarus Democracy Act in the US Congress.

The US delegation included Chairman Cardin, Senator Durbin, Commission Ranking Minority Member Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ), Commissioner Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), Commissioner Congressman Mike McIntyre (D-NC), Commissioner Congressman Robert Aderholt (R-AL), and Congressman Lloyd Doggett (D-TX).



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