Jailed Belarusian opposition leader freed-daughter

By Andrei Makhovsky

MINSK (Reuters) - Jailed Belarusian opposition leader Alexander Kozulin, considered in the West to be the ex-Soviet state's most prominent political prisoner, was released on Saturday and is on his way home, his daughter said.

Western countries have long made his release a condition for improving ties with Belarus and President Alexander Lukashenko, accused of crushing fundamental freedoms.

"This morning he phoned me from the prison and said he had been released," Olga Kozulina told Reuters by telephone.

Interfax West news agency quoted sources in Lukashenko's administration as saying that Kozulin had been pardoned. Officials made no comment.

Kozulin was one of two opposition candidates to run against Lukashenko in a 2006 election and was jailed for 5 1/2 years for helping stage mass protests against the official result declaring the president the winner by a landslide.

He was released as the ex-Soviet state gears up for a parliamentary election next month which the president has promised will be free and fair.

Kozulin was on his way to attend the funeral of his father-in-law and was unlikely to make any public statements before Monday, his daughter said.

A prominent opposition web site,, quoted U.S. charge d'affaires Jonathan Moore, the most senior American diplomat in Belarus, as saying the release was "a first, very important step by Belarusian authorities.

"Let's hope that positive developments with human rights in general will follow."


Lukashenko remains barred from entering the United States and European Union. For more than a year he has sought improved ties with the West, particularly the 27-nation EU, after quarrelling with traditional ally Russia over energy prices.

He said earlier this year he hoped the opposition, unrepresented now in parliament, would win some seats in next month's contest if only to blunt Western criticism.

Veteran opposition figure Anatoly Lebedko said Kozulin's release showed the Belarusian president had bowed to demands in the West for democratic change.

"This shows Lukashenko was obliged to make concessions to the West. I see this as an important victory for democratic society," Lebedko told Reuters.

"His release will significantly improve the political environment for the election campaign."

The lawyer who defended Kozulin in court, Igor Rynkevyh, said a pardon was the only legal way to grant his quick release.

Lukashenko had released other detainees deemed political prisoners, but Kozulin had refused an offer to go abroad to treat his wife for cancer on grounds that it amounted to exile.

He was released on compassion leave for several days in February when his wife died. The academic staged a 53-day hunger strike in 2006 to draw attention to human rights violations.

Two other inmates, jailed after demonstrations earlier this year by small entrepreneurs, are also considered political prisoners.

(Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky, writing by Ron Popeski; editing by Mike Collett-White)



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