MINSK, Belarus (AP) — The authoritarian president of Belarus on Saturday pardoned all six political prisoners in the former Soviet republic, including a former opposition presidential candidate.
Freeing political prisoners was a condition set by the European Union and United States for improved relations with Belarus, which has been ruled by Alexander Lukashenko since 1994.
The EU and U.S. have maintained tough sanctions on Belarus since the violent suppression of peaceful protests during the 2010 presidential election.
Seven of the 10 candidates in that race were arrested. One of them, Nikolai Statkevich was still in prison, serving a six-year sentence for what the court said was plotting riots.
Lukashenko's office said the president, "proceeding from the principle of humanism," decided Saturday to pardon and release Statkevich and five others who are considered to be political prisoners.
Belarus holds its next presidential election in October, with Lukashenko all but certain to win a fifth term. Statkevich was among those who filed to run against him, but last month election officials turned down his candidacy.
"By freeing the political prisoners, Lukashenko is giving a clear signal to the West about his desire to improve relations," said political analyst Alexander Klaskovsky. "Minsk is in real need of Western credits because of the economic collapse."