After more than a year in jail, opposition politician Andrei Sannikov was freed over the weekend, after he was granted a pardon by Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian president of Belarus.
Mr Sannikov arrived in Minsk late on Saturday night, and was greeted by a number of well-wishers chanting slogans of support and foisting flowers upon him. He thanked those who had supported him and said his first wish was to spend time with his family.
European countries had repeatedly called for Mr Sannikov, and a number of other political prisoners, to be freed, and his release may be part of an attempt by Mr Lukashenko to mend extremely frayed relations with Europe. Mr Sannikov, 58, was arrested during protests after a presidential election in 2010, in which Mr Lukashenko won a resounding victory but observers said was rigged. Tens of thousands of people gathered in central Minsk to protest the result, and Mr Sannikov was arrested, along with several other presidential candidates and hundreds of protesters. He was sentenced to five years in prison, and has been kept in harsh conditions, often unable to receive visits from his wife, a journalist who was also arrested and was later kept under house arrest.
Mr Sannikov initially refused to ask for a presidential pardon, but relented earlier this year, apparently after threats to his family. Mr Lukashenko agreed to pardon him over the weekend, and also released Dmitry Bondarenko, who worked as a campaign manager for Mr Sannikov.
Relations between the EU and Belarus remain rocky, and earlier this year all ambassadors from EU countries were withdrawn from Minsk. European bodies cautiously welcome the move, but said that Mr Lukashenko, who has run the country since 1994 and been dubbed “the last dictator in Europe”, needs to do more. “This is excellent news for Sannikov, his family and his friends, but I remain concerned over the fate of other jailed political opponents, notably former presidential candidate Nikolai Statkevich,” said Irish Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore, currently the chairperson of the Office for Security and Cooperation in Europe. “I call upon President Lukashenko to build upon this positive development and release all remaining jailed opposition leaders”.
Belarus is also the last country in Europe to retain the death penalty, and last month executed two men who were convicted of a bomb blast on the Minsk metro system last year. Much of the evidence at the trial was shaky and one of the condemned withdrew his confession, which he said was extracted under torture, but the two were executed anyway.
Irina Bogdanova, a democracy campaigner and the sister of Mr Sannikov, said that the EU should not stop pressuring Mr Lukashenko because of her brother’s release. “We are overjoyed to learn of their release, but we cannot celebrate fully until all political prisoners in Belarus are released and rehabilitated, and free and fair elections are held,” she said. “The EU must not back down because of this news.”