MINSK Belarussian President Aleksander Lukashenko has pardoned six jailed opposition figures, including Nikolai Statkevich who was imprisoned after running against him for the presidency in 2010, his administration said on Saturday.
Lukashenko, who has been in power in the ex-Soviet republic since 1994 and is running for a fifth consecutive term in an election in October, had been motivated by humane principles, his press service said.
Statkevich, 59, is the last to be released of about 10 politicians who were rounded up and detained after running against Lukashenko in an election in 2010 dubbed fraudulent by the West.
EU foreign affairs chiefs said the prisoner release marked "important progress towards the improvement of relations between the EU and Belarus".
The U.S. State Department called the release "an important step toward normalizing relations with the United States." It also reiterated its call for the Belarussian government to restore the political rights of the six opposition figures and other former political prisoners.
Lukashenko, who a U.S. top diplomat once said ran Europe's last dictatorship, is largely ostracised by Western governments because of his intolerance towards political opposition.
Although Western sanctions are still in place, there have been small signs of a thaw this year, with Lukashenko distancing himself from the tough policies of Russia, his country's biggest ally, towards neighbouring Ukraine, and reviving contacts with European Union and U.S. officials.
The European Union is an important trade partner for Belarus and the two sides have been working for years on closer relations to remove trade barriers. Progress has stalled because of what the European Union sees as Belarus’ lack of commitment to democracy and political and civil rights.
"We now expect the authorities of Belarus to remove all restrictions on the enjoyment of full civil and political rights of the released," EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn said in a joint statement on Sunday.
Statkevich was given a six-year jail sentence in May 2011 on a charge of organising mass street protests against Lukashenko's re-election at the time.
"Elections are approaching and Lukashenko now has a chance to get from the West a more or less favourable assessment. It was clear that such an assessment would not be forthcoming from Western politicians while political prisoners were being held in jail," Minsk-based political analyst Aleksander Klaskovsky said.
(Additional reporting by Barbara Lewis in Brussels and Peter Cooney in Washington; Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Susan Fenton and Sandra Maler)