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Prisoners of conscience in Belarus released over Western pressure

April 16, 2012, 15:00 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

 Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko pardoned two opposition politicians among those, who were convicted after the presidential elections in 2010. The former presidential candidate and the leader of the European Belarus civil campaign, Andrei Sannikov, was released from prison on Saturday, April 14, and his election agent at the presidential elections Dmitry Bondarenko was released on Sunday, April 15.

The experts believe that Lukashenko yielded to the pressure from the West, which linked the resumption of the dialogue and the refusal from tougher sanctions with the release of the prisoners of conscience.

Lukashenko emerged a winner at the presidential elections in 2010 with 79.6% of votes, and his main rival Sannikov came second with 2.43%. During the dispersal of the opposition rally on December 19, 2010, the police commandoes beat up Sannikov to the loss of consciousness. In May 2011 Sannikov was sentenced to five years in prison and Bondarenko – to two years in prison.

The release of the prisoners of conscience was expected. European diplomats, the oppositionists and the Belarusian president have been discussing this issue constantly for the last few months. For instance, on April 5 Lukashenko said at a meeting devoted to the foreign policy that he will consider the pardon of several convicted opposition politicians soon.

Sannikov told the Kommersant daily that he does not take his release as an act of generosity or mercy by Lukashenko. He refrained from further comments, noting that this may be harmful for his associates, who are still imprisoned.

The European Union took the guilty verdicts for the participants in the opposition rally in December 2010 as the political manhunt for the opponents and introduced tougher sanctions against the Belarusian authorities. Last March the European Parliament approved a resolution, which enlarged the number of Belarusian officials, who were denied the entry in the EU. The European Parliament demanded an immediate and unconditional release of the prisoners of conscience by the Belarusian authorities. The European Parliament stated that unless the prisoners of conscience are freed and fully reinstated in their civil rights, “the dialogue between the European Union and Belarus cannot advance.”

The resolution also contained an appeal to the European ice hockey federations to consider Belarus’s deprivation of the right to host the World Ice Hockey Championship in 2014. According to Polish media reports, the International Ice Hockey Federation intends to discuss a probable relocation of the World Ice Hockey Championship from Belarus in May 2012.

In April the foreign ministers of the EU states should discuss the possibility of new sanctions against Belarus at a EU summit. “This upcoming summit, a looming threat to deprive Belarus of the right to host the World Ice Hockey Championship made the president release Sannikov and Bondarenko,” the Vedomosti daily quoted Belarusian economist Yaroslav Romanchuk, who was also a candidate in the Belarusian presidential race.

Another reason is Lukashenko’s intentions to play traditionally on the contraposition of Russia and the EU, seeking economic support from each party, Romanchuk noted. It is not accidental that the oppositionists were released not long before Vladimir Putin’s inauguration, he believes.

“Alexander Lukashenko just gave up, because he could do nothing about it,” the Kommersant daily quoted Belarusian expert Yuri Khashchevatsky as saying. Russia also contributed to the capitulation of the Belarusian president, as Moscow voiced its verbal support to Minsk during a protracted confrontation with the EU, but actually refused to come out against the West together with Belarus.

Meanwhile, another 12 prisoners of conscience remain in Belarusian prisons. Minsk will bargain with the West over the release of five well-known oppositionists, namely the leader of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (People’s Assembly) Nikolai Statkevich, the co-chairman of the Belarusian Christian Democracy Party Pavel Severinets, the head of the human rights centre Vesna Ales Belyatsky, the Young Front chairman Dmitry Dashkevich and his deputy Oleg Lobov. They have not asked for pardon yet. All other prisoners of conscience will also be released soon, the expert said.

The pressure on the Belarusian authorities should be continued, the Novye Izvestia cited a member of Sannikov’s election staff Viktor Ivashkevich as saying. “The sense of the current events is neither in the requests for pardon nor the supposition that Lukashenko became kind. The essence is in Western sanctions, which were becoming tougher,” he pointed out.

The International Observation Mission of the Committee on International Control over the Situation with Human Rights in Belarus also agreed not to loosen pressure on Lukashenko. Hailing Sannikov’s release the mission noted that this forced step of the Belarusian authorities resulted from the coordinated international pressure, and, therefore, this release should not be taken as the reason for loosening the pressure.

MOSCOW, April 16