Freed anti-government Belarus leader says was pushed to kill self

MINSK Mon Apr 16, 2012 11:28am EDT

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MINSK (Reuters) - Recently freed Belarussian opposition leader Andrei Sannikov spoke on Monday of how his country's authoritarian government had tried to push him to commit suicide in prison, urging it to release the other political prisoners it was holding.

In an interview with Reuters two days after he was released and pardoned by President Alexander Lukashenko, Sannikov, 58, said the government had placed special provocateurs in prison with him who had tried to break his spirit and get him to take his own life.

"The aim of the provocations was to humiliate me, to bring my status in the eyes of the inmates to the lowest possible level," he said.

"I am sure I was being pushed to end my life... What has happened to me was organized by the most sophisticated sadists who knew the psychology of a prison inmate in general very well and knew what was happening in my soul."

Sentenced to five years in prison last year for taking part in a protest against Lukashenko's disputed re-election in 2010, Sannikov said he was moved from one prison to another seven times.

His release could help ease tensions between Minsk and the European Union, which had been lobbying for his freedom and had recalled all its ambassadors from Belarus in February.

Lukashenko pardoned Sannikov after the EU imposed visa bans and asset freezes on government officials and businessmen in the former Soviet republic.

Some of the cellmates Sannikov said he thought were put there just to make his life hell were outcasts, even in the criminal world they inhabited, he said, adding that his treatment amounted to torture.

"Now, I want to rebuild my crushed life," said Sannikov.

A former deputy foreign minister and presidential candidate, Sannikov called on the government to now release the rest of the political prisoners it was holding.

"The release of political prisoners must definitely be a priority now," he said. "We do not know what is happening to them."

Human rights groups say the government is holding around a further 15 people on purely political grounds.

Lukashenko has run Belarus since 1994, tolerating little dissent and maintaining a Soviet-style economic system with artificially low prices, a large public sector and nearly full employment.

The system relies heavily on financial support from Russia, which provides Belarus with cheap energy and other benefits.

Sannikov ran against Lukashenko in the 2010 poll which Western observers criticized as fraudulent. The vote handed Lukashenko, a former Soviet collective farm manager, a fourth term in office.

Sannikov's wife, a journalist, was also jailed by the authorities. She has already been released.

Sannikov's 2010 campaign chief Dmitry Bondarenko was released last week.

(Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

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