June 30, 2012 / 5:06 PM / 7 years ago

Belarus frees journalist, seen as gesture to Poland

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus officials conditionally released a Polish newspaper correspondent from jail on Saturday in a move seen as easing tensions before a likely meeting between Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko and his Polish counterpart at the Euro 2012 soccer final.

Andrzej Poczobut, a Belarussian citizen who works for Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza and is a prominent activist for the rights of the Polish minority in Belarus, was arrested a week ago in his hometown of Grodno.

At the time, police told him he was being arrested for offences similar to ones for which he spent three months in jail last year before he was given a three-year suspended sentence.

Poczobut was originally convicted of insulting Lukashenko in articles published in Gazeta Wyborcza and on Belarussian websites.

“Today they came into my cell, told me to get my things together and then a prison official read out an official declaration that the custodial measure was being changed,” Poczobut told Reuters by telephone from Grodno.

The terms of his provisional release meant he was not allowed to leave the country, he said.

“They indicated to me that I could be back in jail quickly and easily. But I do not consider that I am guilty of anything and everything that has happened will not make me change my behavior,” he said.

In power since 1994, Lukashenko tolerates little dissent and has not hesitated to lock up political opponents.

Poczobut’s case has led to protests from European Union member Poland.

Analysts said the journalist’s release was clearly linked to Lukahsenko’s visit to the Ukrainian capital Kiev on Sunday for the European championship soccer final between Italy and Spain.

Ukraine is co-host with Poland of the tournament and Lukashenko seems certain to meet Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski in Kiev.

“Lukashenko wants to fly to the football in Kiev where the Polish president will also be. He had to ease at least a little bit of the tension,” said Belarussian independent political analyst Alexander Klaskovsky.

The European Union has introduced sanctions such as travel bans and asset freezes against Lukashenko and some of his officials after a crack-down on public protests against the president’s re-election in December 2010.

The former Soviet republic will hold a parliamentary election in September, although the opposition, long kept out of the legislature, has little hope of winning any seats. (Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky; Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Roger Atwood)

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