In late August, Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenka ordered the release of six political prisoners, many of whom were imprisoned for protests against the government. The released prisoners are Ihar Alinevich, Mikalai Dziadok, Evgeniy Vaskovich, Artyom Prokopenko, and Yuriy Rubtsov; and former candidate for the Presidency Mikalai Statkevich.
In May 2011, Mr. Statkevich was convicted of organizing street protests against Aleksandr Lukashenka’s re-election, and drew a six year prison sentence. He is one of about a dozen candidates for the Presidency who were arrested and convicted, and the last to be released.
The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions against President Lukashenka, Belarusian government officials and Belarusian business entities for the seriously flawed 2006 presidential election, and for violation of human rights and intolerance towards political opposition.
A spokesman for the Belarussian government said the prisoners were released on humanitarian grounds; nonetheless, this move comes as Aleksandr Lukashenka prepares to run for a fifth presidential term in elections set for October 11th.
Still, the pardon has brought cautious praise from the U.S. and Europe, and increased hope that Belarus may be intent on emerging from its isolation. The October elections will be watched with great interest.
The United States welcomes the pardon of political prisoners in Belarus. “The release of these six political prisoners is a positive development for the people of Belarus and an important step toward normalizing relations with the United States. We reiterate our call for the Government of Belarus to restore the political rights of these six and other former political prisoners,” said State Department Spokesperson John Kirby.
“We also encourage Belarus to honor the U.S.-Belarus December 2010 joint statement and conduct its upcoming elections in line with the standards of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which will further improve our bilateral relationship. These steps will strengthen Belarusian sovereignty and independence, which the United States unequivocally and firmly supports.”