Belarus Frees Opposition Politician From Prison


MOSCOW - Belarus, a former Soviet republic that is considered to have one of the world's most authoritarian governments, on Saturday released its most prominent opposition politician from prison, where he had been serving a lengthy sentence for leading antigovernment protests, officials said.

The opposition figure, Aleksandr V. Kazulin, was freed after months of pressure from the United States and the European Union on Belarus's president, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko.

Relations between Belarus and the West have grown more strained as Washington has stepped up sanctions in an effort to compel Mr. Lukashenko to curb political repression.

Mr. Lukashenko is often described as a throwback to a Soviet-style leader who keeps control with the help of a security agency, which is still called the K.G.B.

The war in nearby Georgia has sent tremors through relations between Russia and other former Soviet republics and satellites, but American officials said on Saturday that they believed that Mr. Kazulin's release was not related to the conflict.

Belarus and Russia have had generally good relations and have often talked in recent years about forming an official union.

Even so, Russia has expressed some displeasure in recent days that the Lukashenko government has not offered more vocal support for the Russian side in the Georgia conflict.

Belarus is to hold parliamentary elections next month. Mr. Lukashenko has pledged that they will be free and fair, and Mr. Kazulin's release may be related to the government's attempt to try to improve Belarus's image before the voting.

On Saturday, Mr. Kazulin did not make any remarks upon leaving the Vitba 3 prison, officials said.

Jonathan Moore, the senior United States diplomat in Belarus's capital, Minsk, said in a telephone interview that the release of Mr. Kazulin "was an important step in improving the human rights situation in Belarus."

In answer to American sanctions, Belarus has expelled many United States diplomats, and there is no American ambassador in Minsk.

The United States imposed the sanctions against Mr. Lukashenko and other senior officials after the police arrested protesters at demonstrations in response to the 2006 presidential election. Last year, the Treasury Department froze the assets of the state energy and chemical company, Belneftekhim.

Mr. Kazulin, 52, a former Lukashenko ally, turned against him and ran in the presidential election, which was described by election observers as rigged in Mr. Lukashenko's favor.

Mr. Kazulin was arrested and sentenced to five and a half years in prison.

He was briefly released in February to attend the funeral of his wife, Irina, who died of cancer. He had threatened a hunger strike if he was not allowed to go.



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