MINSK Belarus on Saturday unexpectedly freed leading rights activist Ales Belyatsky, whose jailing for tax evasion in November 2011 prompted an outcry in the European Union and human rights circles.
Belyatsky, 51, who headed the rights group Vesna-96 and was serving a 4-1/2-year sentence, told journalists his release was unexpected.
"They amnestied me. ... They let me go only an hour ago," he said after arriving in Minsk on a train.
Belyatsky was arrested and charged after officials in EU members Poland and Lithuania unwittingly helped his prosecution by supplying information about bank accounts held in his name after a request by Belarus' financial authorities.
Belarus imposes tough restrictions on the financing of non-governmental organizations and their activities that virtually rule out any financial help from abroad.
Under his leadership, Vesna-96 campaigned for scores of opposition activists prosecuted by the government of President Alexander Lukashenko.
At the time, the EU denounced Belyatsky's sentence as "clearly politically motivated" and said it symbolized an intensifying crackdown on Lukashenko's political opponents.
Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet republic for 20 years, and other officials are subject to travel restrictions by the EU and the United States because of his harsh policies at home that have neutralized the political opposition.
The United States welcomed Belyatsky's release and urged Belarus to free all political prisoners and restore their political rights.
"These actions would pave the way for normalization of relations between the United States and Belarus," the State Department said in a statement.
(Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington; Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Alison Williams and Peter Cooney)