A prominent Belarusian opposition journalist who has spent much of the last two years under house arrest has been given permission by her government to travel to Britain and see her husband.
Irina Khalip, the wife of the now exiled presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov, said she hoped to visit her husband next month but she also vowed to return to her homeland.
Both Mr Sannikov and Mrs Khalip were among hundreds of opposition activists who were arrested and imprisoned in the immediate aftermath of widespread protests against the disputed December 2010 presidential elections. The vote, which was widely condemned by observers as fraudulent, returned Belarus’ long standing strongman Alexander Lukashenko to power but also resulted in an unusually widespread protest movement in the highly controlled quasi-Stalinist state.
Mr Sannikov was jailed for five years but released last April. He has since fled to Britain and claimed political asylum. His wife remained under de facto house imprisonment and was banned from travelling abroad.
But this week a parole board in Minsk informed her that she could visit her husband before April 3. She is also now allowed to visit the offices of Novaya Gazeta, the Moscow newspaper which is partially owned by the Lebedev family, owners of The Independent and Evening Standard titles.
After being told she could travel Mrs Khalip thanked Evgeny Lebedev and Belarusian journalist Tanya Korovenkova for lobbying Mr Lukashenko during a recent conversation with him.
Mr Lebedev said: “I am very pleased that finally Mr Lukashenko is keeping his word and Irina will be allowed to come to London. She’s one of our most courageous journalists and it’s great news she will be able to be reunited with her husband.”
Speaking to The Independent, Mr Sannikov said he was “excited but cautious” about the news.
“It is the police exercising surveillance who have given her permission,” he said. “Now she is enquiring with the visa department whether she will be able to go without being stopped at the airport.”
Asked whether there was a fear his wife not be allowed back into the country he replied: “It’s a concern always. She doesn’t want to leave her roots, she has stated that several times. She is going through all these procedures so she can have formal permission to leave and come back.”
Speaking to the local news agency BelaPAN, Mrs Khalip said she was determined to return. “If the authorities hope that I'll never come back, they'll be disappointed,” she said. “I'm an exemplary prisoner. My probation period will be over in July, and I'll wait for the court to hear my case.”