Belarus frees jailed opposition leader

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarussian opposition politician Andrei Sannikov was released from prison on Saturday after the European Union imposed new sanctions on the former Soviet republic.

Former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov stands in a guarded cage during a court hearing in Minsk May 14, 2011. REUTERS/Julia Darashkevich

Sannikov, a former deputy foreign minister and presidential candidate, was sentenced to five years in prison last year for taking part in a mass protest that followed President Alexander Lukashenko’s re-election for a fourth term in December 2010.

The European Union has long urged his release and introduced travel bans and asset freezes against a number of Belarussian officials and businessmen, prompting a diplomatic row with Minsk in February after which all EU ambassadors left Belarus.

In a move that could help avert any further escalation of the conflict, Lukashenko’s government released Sannikov from his high-security prison on Saturday without giving any official explanation as to why he had been released.

“He is at a railway station in (city of) Vitebsk,” Sannikov’s wife Irina Khalip told Reuters. “We are arranging for his return.”

Sannikov’s family said it had not been given any explanation on why he was released. The authorities could not be reached for comment.

Human rights activists say about 15 people are still kept in Belarussian prisons on political grounds.

Sannikov, 58, ran against Lukashenko in the 2010 poll which Western observers criticised as fraudulent, and is one of the leading opposition politicians in the tightly run authoritarian nation.

A number of other opposition politicians and activists were detained at the rally and jailed afterwards, although most have since been released.

Sannikov had initially refused to ask Lukashenko for pardon but submitted such a request last December after what he described as threats against his family.

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

He has relied largely on financial support from Russia, which provides Belarus with cheap energy and other benefits, seeing it as a buffer between itself and the NATO.

Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov Editing by Maria Golovnina