Updated at 16:11,02-12-2016

Freed Belarus dissident credits EU sanctions

Belarus has freed two prominent political prisoners - former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov and his aide Dmitry Bondarenko - in a bid to mend EU relations.

The two men were incarcerated last year for allegedly disturbing the peace and instigating riots after President Alexander Lukashenko's fraudulent re-election on 19 December 2010. Both got a personal pardon from the autocratic leader on Saturday (14 April).

"This is the result of the actions of the European Union ... But I would like to emphasise that it is only due to the solidarity of the Belarusians, families of the political prisoners, our friends, in fact the entire country, that influential international institutions have introduced clear and straight politics regarding Belarus," Sannikov told opposition website Chater97 after his release, referring to EU sanctions.

The 58-year-old former deputy foreign minister had been sentenced to five years. Over the past 16 months, he endured solitary confinement and torture in a labour camp in Vitebsk, northeast Belarus. Bondarenko had been sentenced to two years at a penal colony in Mogilev, near the border with Russia.

Sannikov also told Charter97: "The goal was to destroy me physically, to make me commit suicide by a termless hunger strike, to make my physical elimination look like my own decision to die. I'm afraid the same is happening with Siargey Kavalenka [a hunger striker currently in hospital]and other political prisoners."

In early March, Sannikov's wife, Irena Khallip, told EUobserver she had lost hope of ever seeing him again as a free man. She was allowed to visit him in January and described her husband as looking as if he had spent 10 years in a Stalin gulag.

Khallip herself is confined to house arrest in her 13th-floor apartment in central Minsk, along with their five-year old son.

The EU stepped up sanctions in March by targeting two oligarchs and 29 firms said to be financing the regime, on top of more than 200 officials and senior politicians on earlier blacklists.

EU ambassadors also left the country in February in solidarity with the Polish and EU envoys, who were kicked out by Lukashenko. The EU diplomats are expected to return en bloc in the next few days.

With 10 more dissidents still behind bars, EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fule said on Sunday the release of the two men is not enough to normalise relations.

He also noted that they were forced to write letters to Lukashenko to beg forgiveness.

"The release of Mr Sannikov and Mr Bondarenko is a fundamental first step one would naturally expect - especially in a situation when the head of state promised to pardon those who asked for it. Although personally I think it is against the principles of modern Europe and against human dignity to force people to admit what they never did, when their only 'crime' was expressing their own opinion," the commissioner said.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Asthon described the men as "symbols" of a democratic Belarus.