Belarus releases detainees as EU readies sanctions

MINSK Sat Jan 29, 2011 2:55pm EST

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus Saturday released seven detainees, including a former candidate for the presidency, who were arrested in December during mass street protests over the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko.

The move came on the eve of an expected announcement by the European Union that it will reinstate a visa ban on Lukashenko and other Belarussian officials in response to his crackdown on protests following his disputed re-election in December.

Belarus's KGB state security police said in a statement that Vladimir Neklyayev, 64, and six other people, including the wife of another jailed presidential candidate, were being provisionally released because of good behaviour.

Neklyayev, a poet who heads the "Tell the Truth" movement, and Irina Khalip, who is married to Andrei Sannikov of the "For a European Belarus" movement, would be kept under house arrest, the KGB statement said.

Neklyayev himself was beaten by state security police on December 19 while he was on his way to join a protest march in the city centre and was spirited away from his hospital bed to jail by KGB state security officials while recovering.

Analysts said the Lukashenko leadership had clearly timed the move to complicate the EU's approach to punitive measures against the ex-Soviet republic whose conduct during the December 19 election it has harshly condemned.

The United States has also said it is weighing renewed sanctions and has equally called for the release of detainees.

RIGHTS VIOLATIONS

Western governments have grown increasingly concerned over human rights violations in Belarus and have pressed Lukashenko to free the scores of protesters held after the December 19 vote, which the opposition and international monitors say was rigged.

EU foreign ministers are expected to agree Monday in Brussels to reimpose visa bans that were suspended by the EU in 2008 to encourage reforms in the ex-Soviet republic.

"This (the release of detainees) is an attempt to ... disarm those in the EU who are in favour of tough sanctions. It indicates that Belarus authorities attach importance to these sanctions despite Lukashenko's swagger," said independent analyst Valeriy Karbalevich in Minsk.

Earlier this week, Lukashenko, once a Soviet state farm director who has ruled the former Soviet republic of 10 million in autocratic style since 1994, publicly sneered at possible EU action, saying he had lived with EU sanctions for 10 years already.

The EU imposed travel sanctions and froze assets of Lukashenko and other Belarus officials in 2006 after his last re-election which also led to street protests. The financial measures remain in place and more are likely to be introduced, according to an EU diplomat speaking Friday.

More than 150 officials will be barred from the 27 EU states, including some responsible for the post-election violence, the diplomat said. Diplomats said the EU will also not hold any talks with Minsk over a financial assistance program for reforms for now.

Authorities in Minsk have said the first detainees could go on trial as early as next month accused of instigating and taking part in mass unrest -- a charge which carries up to 15 years imprisonment.

In Minsk Saturday, the mother of Irina Khalip confirmed her daughter had been re-united with her three-year-old son Danil at home.

"He could not believe his eyes," Lyutsina Khalip told Reuters, adding that her daughter was not allowed to come to the telephone under the terms of her provisional release.

Belarus is an important transit route for Russian energy, with a fifth of Russia's gas supplied to Europe crossing its borders, as well as a significant portion of oil. Moscow also sees it as a buffer between it and NATO.

Lukashenko needs foreign cash to keep the economy afloat and has manoeuvred between Russia and the EU, as well as China and Venezuela, often switching sides to win pledges of investment and financial aid.

(Writing by Richard Balmforth in Kiev; Editing by Jon Boyle)