Belarus' Release of Political Prisoners Welcomed

By Stephen Kaufman

The Belarusian government's release of the last of its political prisoners provides a real potential for an improvement in relations with the United States, the State Department says.

In an August 20 statement, acting deputy spokesman Robert Wood welcomed the release of Syarhey Parsyukevich and Andrey Kim. Aleksandr Kozulin was released August 16.

"The release of these individuals, combined with what we hope will be further positive steps, offers the real possibility of a significant improvement in relations between the United States and Belarus," Wood said.

He added that "in light of this development," Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs David Merkel would be traveling to Minsk to meet with both government officials and members of the democratic opposition.

Kozulin's daughter, Olga, was featured in a July 24 panel discussion at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York called "Courageous Voices: Speaking Out for Prisoners of Conscience." (See "Activists Want World Attention on Belarus' Human Rights Abuses ( ).")

The United States considered Parsyukevich and Kim to be the last Belarusians held in prison for their political beliefs. Parsyukevich was jailed in April after protesting new business rules imposed by the government, and Kim was imprisoned on the grounds of attacking a policeman at the same protest.

Until his August 16 release, Kozulin was considered the opposition's most prominent activist. He had been imprisoned since 2006 after protesting the re-election of President Aleksandr Lukashenko.

Speaking to reporters August 21, Wood said he was unaware of the Belarusian government's motives in the releases, but praised them as "a very good step," and said Merkel's visit to Minsk was a signal of U.S. support for the action as well as an opportunity to "discuss other steps Belarus could take to improve respect for human rights and democracy."

"[O]ne of the concerns we've had all along with Belarus is its ... holding of political prisoners and obviously they've released the last of them. ... [T]hat's going to be an important step in terms of how we look at the future of the relationship," Wood said, adding the United States will be "examining all of our options."

Former U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Karen Stewart was withdrawn earlier in 2008 after Belarus cut the number of U.S. embassy staff in protest of U.S. economic sanctions.

In May, Merkel said U.S. policy on sanctions was tied to Belarus' improvement of its democracy and human rights as well as the need to free political prisoners. (See "Human Rights Concerns Prompt Continued U.S. Sanctions on Belarus ( ).")

U.S. officials remain concerned about Emanuel Zeltser, a U.S. citizen who has been imprisoned in Belarus since his August 2007 conviction of industrial espionage. He is reported to be in ill health. Wood said the United States "would obviously encourage the Belarusians to treat him in ... a very humane fashion."

Source: U.S. Department of State



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