Lukashenko frees critics after pressure from EU

Lukashenko frees critics after pressure from EU

Lukashenko frees critics after pressure from EU

Belarus opposition leader and ex-presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov (R) reacts after being released from jail early on April 15 in Minsk. AFP photo

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko on April 14 freed jailed opposition leader Andrei Sannikov after the European Union imposed new sanctions on the former Soviet republic, Sannikov told Reuters.

Sannikov, 58, a former deputy foreign minister and presidential candidate, was sentenced to five years in prison last year for taking part in a protest that followed Lukashenko’s disputed re-election victory in December 2010.

Sannikov said he was released from his high-security prison thanks to a presidential pardon, a move that may help calm a diplomatic spat between Minsk and the European Union, which has been lobbying for his freedom.

Wife, also released

Sannikov is one of the leading opposition leaders in the tightly run authoritarian nation and his wife, a journalist, was also jailed by the authorities. She had already been released. The EU had long demanded Sannikov’s release, imposing travel bans and asset freezes on a number of Belarussian officials and businessmen to help secure his freedom. That pressure triggered a diplomatic row with Minsk in February that led to all of the 27-nation bloc’s ambassadors leaving Belarus. Meanwhile, another prominent opposition figure arrested in Lukashenko’s crackdown on the opposition, the activist Dmitry Bondarenko, was also released yesterday, his wife told Agence France-Presse.

Bondarenko’s wife Olga said that the activist had also been pardoned while serving a two year sentence and was now heading back to Minsk from the city of Mogilev where he had been imprisoned.