Saturday

25th Mar 2023

Belarus frees prisoners ahead of elections

  • Belarus releases six political prisoners but at least three other remain locked up (Photo: Marco Fieber)

Belarus has released six political prisoners ahead of presidential elections later this year.

The move has been described by the European Union “as a long-sought step forward”, but detractors say it’s part of a strategy by Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko to secure more Russian loans amid a recession.

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In a joint statement on Sunday (23 August), EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and commissioner for European neighbourhood policy Johannes Hahn, said they "now expect the authorities of Belarus to remove all restrictions on the enjoyment of full civil and political rights of the released”.

Lukashenko’s two decade-long rule over the former Soviet republic has seen opposition movements pushed underground and challengers to his rule sent to prison.

His strong-arm tactics over the years have been met with a heap of Western sanctions.

But at the same time, Lukashenko has spoken out against his long-time ally and main trading partner Russia following Crimea’s annexation.

His international standing was also given a boost after hosting the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany earlier this year in Minsk in an attempt to settle a ceasefire agreement.

Confinement

Among those released on Saturday (22 August) was Mikalai Statkevich, a 59-year old retired lieutenant colonel, whose presidential bid in 2010 ended with a six-year prison sentence.

Charged with organising mass street protests, Statkevich served four years and eight months. Much of that time was in solitary confinement.

In an interview with the exiled Belarus opposition website Charter ’97, he said the release is a concession to the European Union and an attempt to seek financial gains from Russia.

“In the next few days the question of receiving another credit from the Eurasian Union and support of the Belarusian regime by Russian money are to be decided upon, and our release could be an attempt to frighten Putin: look, I am making concessions to the West, and in case you don’t give money, I will really take offence at you”, he told the website.

The International Monetary Fund in May said economic policies have fueled inflation and external imbalances and left Belarus dependent on ad hoc external support, primarily from Russia.

Recession

The Washington-based fund projects a bleak economic outlook for the rest of the year, led by falling exports.

The World Bank in April said Belarus is expected to enter into recession during 2015, which is likely to continue in 2016.

Lukashenko, for his part, says the release was a humanitarian gesture.

The Belarus leader is seeking his fifth presidential term in an 11 October election.

Statkevich, along with Mikalai Dziadok, Ihar Alinevich, Yauhen Vaskovich, Artsiom Prakapenka and Yury Rubtsou gained their freedom a day after registration closed for presidential contenders.

But not quite all political prisoners have been released.

According to Minsk-based human rights centre, Viasna, three others are still being detained in penal colonies.

“We view their groundless persecution as politically-motivated harassment”, said Viasna’s deputy chairman Valiantsin Stefanovich.

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