Belarusian thaw: Lukashenko pardons ‘political prisoners’ amid EU pressure

Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko pardoned two opposition figures imprisoned for ‘organizing a riot’ in 2010 as the EU considers a fresh range of sanctions against his regime.

­Andrey Sannikov, a presidential hopeful during the 2010 election, and his advisor Andrey Bondarenko were released from prison on Saturday and Sunday respectively after Lukashenko approved the two men’s pardon pleas.

They were serving terms of five and two years respectively for organizing a rally against alleged election rigging, which descended into violence on December 19th in Minsk. Several other prominent opposition members were tried and sentenced over similar allegations.

Sannikov and Bondarenko are considered by the EU to be ‘political prisoners’, along with 9 other Belarusian opposition members. The EU has effectively frozen relations with Belarus until all 11 are released, though Lukashenko’s govt claims EU sanctions and the imprisonment of political opposition are unrelated. 

­

Andrey Sannikov on trial in the Minsk House of Justice (RIA Novosti / Sergey Samokhin)
Andrey Sannikov on trial in the Minsk House of Justice (RIA Novosti / Sergey Samokhin)

Nevertheless last week Lukashenko announced he would consider pardoning the convicted activists, but only if they plea for it.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton welcomed the news, but pressed for more from the country's rulers.

"I call on the authorities of Belarus to release unconditionally now also all other remaining political prisoners and to remove all restrictions on the enjoyment of their civil and political rights," she said in a statement. "This would certainly contribute to possibilities for moving towards improved relations between the EU and Belarus."

Relations between Minsk and the EU have deteriorated dramatically since February. The European Parliament issued new sanctions against Belarusian authorities and businessmen considered to be major sponsors of Lukashenko’s government and EU members recalled their ambassadors from Minsk during the ensuing diplomatic row.

An EU decision on new sanctions against the govt of Belarus is due this week, while the International Ice Hockey Federation will review its decision to allow Belarus host the 2014 world championship.