Updated at 11:30,08-12-2016

Surprise Pardons Follow Belarus Pledge To Release Political Prisoners - photo

Four Belarusian activists jailed in connection with last year's contentious presidential election have been freed after a pardon from President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

The releases come as EU officials say the Belarusian leader has pledged to release all political prisoners by mid-October.

They also follow a proposal by Lukashenka of roundtable talks with his political opponents, and raise hopes of improved relations between Minsk and the West.

Surprise Pardons Follow Belarus Pledge To Release Political Prisoners - photo


Andrey Protasenya, seen here entering his Minsk home after his overnight release from jail, was a campaigner for opposition presidential candidate Yaroslav Romanchuk in Belarus's December 2010 vote.


Andrey Protasenya, a campaigner for opposition presidential candidate Yaroslav Romanchuk in Belarus's December 2010 vote, was one of the four pardoned activists, whose jail terms were tied to their involvement in protests against the longtime president's reelection.

Protasenya served four months in a high-security prison and was facing a three-year jail term when he was suddenly pardoned on September 1. The news came so quickly, he said, he barely had time to say goodbye to his cellmates.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Belarus Service, Protasenya welcomed his release but said attention should remain focused on the nearly 20 opposition activists still in jail for their role in the postelection protests.

"I'm out, but I can't say there's a feeling of intense happiness," Protasenya said. "Maybe that sensation is there, but it's mixed with the sensation that people are still back there in jail. I feel bad about that."

Surprise Pardons Follow Belarus Pledge To Release Political Prisoners - photo


Dzmitry Daronin hours after his unexpected release from prison on September 2

But that situation may be about to change as well. EU member Bulgaria has indicated that Lukashenka has agreed to release all of his country's political prisoners by the first half of October.

Political Headway?

The development comes after Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolay Mladenov met with Lukashenka last week in Minsk. Lukashenka had previously approached Lithuania and Italy to serve as intermediaries with the EU.

News of Lukashenka's pledge came days after he offered to meet with members of Belarus's political opposition and after authorities dropped protest-related charges against six other Belarusian activists.

The moves appear to be a sign the authoritarian leader is once again seeking to improve ties with the West.

With Belarus facing a mounting economic crisis, Lukashenka may be hoping for Western support to help quell rising alarm among ordinary Belarusians.

Surprise Pardons Follow Belarus Pledge To Release Political Prisoners - photo


Ales Kirkevich (center) arrives in Minsk after his release from prison on September 2.

EU foreign ministers were expected to discuss the Belarus situation at a two-day meeting in Sopot in northern Poland that began within hours of the pardons.

Question Of Guilt

More than 700 people were detained during the protests against Lukashenka's reelection. Three of the former presidential candidates are among those still in jail.

A Lukashenka spokesman said the four men released on September 1-2 were pardoned because they had "recognized their guilt and the unlawful character of their actions" during the December unrest.

But Aleh Hnedchyk, who was facing four years in a high-security prison before his release, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service he refused to acknowledge his guilt and remained uncertain why he was pardoned.

Surprise Pardons Follow Belarus Pledge To Release Political Prisoners - photo


"I wrote down that I didn't acknowledge their version of events. The next day they called me and said they needed me to write it again while they videotaped me. I said I wouldn't do it. They said that in that case I'd continue to stay there. That's how it went. But now, I don't know why," Hnedchyk said. "Perhaps when Lukashenka said yesterday that it was time to sit at the negotiating table -- this was probably [a kind of] negotiation, his first step toward that, in my opinion."

Hnedchyk expressed hope that all remaining political prisoners would be released within three weeks.

The other two released activists are Ales Kirkevich, the deputy chairman of the Young Front opposition group, and Dzmitry Daronin, a Minsk native arrested in March in connection with the protests.

Nine other opposition members convicted as part of the same case had earlier received presidential pardons.