EU demands more Belarus jail releases
European leaders have welcomed this weekend's release in Belarus of two high-profile political prisoners but tempered their statements with demands that Minsk release other dissenters and respect their rights.
Prison authorities freed a former opposition presidential candidate and his aide without warning after they were reportedly pardoned by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
After his release, late on April 14, onetime candidate Andrey Sannikau accused Belarusian officials of playing "a game" and predicted that other political prisoners would soon be freed.
Sannikau and his former campaign aide, Dzmitry Bandarenka, were among a handful of prominent opposition activists and politicians still jailed over the December 2010 presidential election that handed Lukashenka a fourth term.
The European Union and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have applauded the releases but warned that there is more work to be done by Minsk.
"I welcome the news that former presidential candidate [Andrey Sannikau] as well as his main campaign aide Dzmitry Bandarenka are now free and will be able to rejoin their families and friends," Catherine Ashton, the high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy and vice president of the commission, said in a statement on April 15.
She said the two men "stand out as prominent symbols for the tireless work and commitment of many for a democratic and European Belarus" and repeated the EU and other governments' accusation that their jailings were "on political grounds."
Lukashenka's regime has sporadically bowed to Western pressure over the routine jailing of political opponents and others who dare to criticize the government, and European and other sanctions were recently tightened against influential Belarusian officials.
"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," Ashton's statement added. "This would certainly contribute to possibilities for moving towards improved relations between the EU and Belarus."
There are thought to be around 10 remaining political prisoners high on Western demands for release by Lukashenka's regime, including another presidential candidate in 2010, Mikola Statkevich.
The OSCE's chairperson-in-office, Irish Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore, mentioned Statkevich by name in his comments.
"This is excellent news for [Sannikau], his family and his friends, but I remain concerned over the fate of other jailed political opponents, notably former presidential candidate [Mikola] Statkevich," Gilmore said in an OSCE statement. "I call upon President [Lukashenka] to build upon this positive development and release all remaining jailed opposition leaders."
Belarus stayed away from talks in March on the EU's Eastern Partnership, which is aimed at improving political and economic relations between the EU and six former Soviet republics: Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Moldova.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele called Sannikau's and Bandarenka's releases "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."
He added: "The EU has repeatedly stressed that all political prisoners must be released and rehabilitated, only then we can consider normalization of the relations with Minsk."
A founder of the Charter 97 group and leading proponent of the European Belarus civil initiative, Sannikau was beaten and jailed over street protests that broke out within hours of voting on December 19, 2010. He was sentenced to five years in prison, and had spent recent months at a labor camp that he described as "torture."
"I think we are witnessing a game," Sannikau said on April 15. "Now they [the authorities] will watch the reaction to see what will happen."
He speculated that "almost all" the remaining political prisoners might be released "in the very near future."
But he urged critics at home and abroad to keep the pressure on Lukashenka's administration. "[W]e have to stress that until they release all political prisoners, there shouldn't be any steps on the part of those who are calling for this -- Europe [or] our public opinion."