EU Belarus sanctions reportedly up for review as political prisoners go free

By bne IntelliNews August 24, 2015

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Foreign ministers of the European Union (EU) may consider suspending sanctions against Belarus at an informal meeting in Luxembourg in response to the release of political prisoners by the republic's leadership, news reports say, citing diplomatic sources in Brussels.

"The decision of President [Alexander] Lukashenko on releasing jailed opposition leaders creates conditions for suspending the sanctions. This will be discussed on September 4-5," an unnamed diplomat close to the situation said in remarks quoted by Russia's TASS news agency on August 24.

According to the agency, some EU member states have called for a one-year suspension of the sanctions against Minsk in view of gradually improved political relations and enhanced trading opportunities between the union and the former Soviet republic.

On August 22, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko pardoned six jailed opposition figures, including Nikolai Statkevich, who was imprisoned for 6 years in 2011 after running against Lukashenko for the presidency in 2010. Statkevich was accused by authorities of plotting to riot on election night. During his detention he refused to write a plea for a presidential pardon (as many other opposition politicians did) in order to be freed, as this would effectively mean an admission of guilt.

Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, released the jailed political prisoners ahead of the next presidential election due on October 11. He is expected to win a fifth consecutive term by a strong majority , and stands to gain internationally by softening his stance on the opposition as Belarus looks to expand its ties westwards.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn said in a joint statement said that the release of prisoners is "a long-sought step forward" ... "Today's releases represent important progress in the efforts towards the improvement of relations between the EU and Belarus," the statement read.

The United States also welcomed the move of the Belarusian authorities. "The release of these six political prisoners is a positive development for the people of Belarus and an important step toward normalizing relations with the US," John Kirby, spokesperson for the State Department, said in comments published on August 23. "We reiterate our call for the government of Belarus to restore the political rights of these six and other former political prisoners," Kirby added.

Meanwhile, the head of the EU delegation to Belarus, Maira Mora, whose diplomatic mission in Belarus is currently expiring, said during a meeting with Lukashenko on August 24 that she is leaving the country as its relations with the EU are improving. "I would like to see the relations remain like this in the future. We are neighbours and we should live in peace and harmony," Mora said, as quoted by BelTA news agency.

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