The government of Belarus has released the last of its political prisoners. Former presidential candidate Alyaksander Kazulin was freed from prison on August 16th, over two years after his arrest and conviction on charges of alleged hooliganism at a protest demonstration, after the fraudulent March 2006 presidential election. On August 20th, Belrusian authorities released the last two political prisoners, businessman Syarhey Parsyukevich and youth activist Andrey Kim. Mr. Parsyukevich and Mr. Kim had been imprisoned on charges stemming from a demonstration held last January to protest new Belarusian government restrictions on businesses.
U-S State Department Deputy Spokesman Robert Wood welcomed the Belarusian government's release of the last of its political prisoners. "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," Mr. Wood said in statement.
In light of this positive step from Belarus, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs David Merkel traveled to Minsk August 21 to August 23 to signal U.S. support for this action and to develop a dialogue with the Belarusian government. Deputy Assistant Secretary Merkel also met with opposition and civil society representatives, including the recently released Alyaksandr Kazulin, to demonstrate continuing support for their efforts.
The United States will look to the conduct of the parliamentary elections on September 28 as a next step in Belarus' commitment to genuine democratic change. Further positive steps lead to the possible removal of sanctions the U.S. has placed on Belarus in response to human rights abuses there. "Sanctions were imposed to encourage Belarus to perform positive change. We would like to see such changes in Belarus and it would be a reason to lift the sanctions," Deputy Assistant Secretary Merkel stated in an interview with European Radio for Belarus.
As President George W. Bush stated in remarks during Captive Nations week, "The challenge for future presidents and future Congresses is to ensure that America always stands with those seeking freedom – and never hesitates to shine the light of conscience on abuses of human rights across the world."