On August 22 President of Belarus Lukashenka issued an order "based on the principle of humanism" to release 6 political prisoners Mikalai Statkevich, Mikalay Dedkov, Ihar Olinevich, Yauhen Vaskovich, Artsyom Prokopenko, and Yury Rubtsov. The release comes just few months before the presidential election which will be held on 11 October.
An opposition candidate for the presidential election, Tatsyana Karatkevich said that the release is the "best news possible" and means that Lukashenka has "made a step towards the European Union" that she believes is related to the country's "difficult economic situation." The Council of Belarusian People’s Republic (BPR) said in a statement released on August 24 that it welcomes the release of political prisoners and “calls on the authorities to make further steps to normalise the political situation in the country.” The BPR Council also calls on the international community, including the EU and the US, to “continue decisively demand the democratisation in Belarus and provide all possible assistance to Belarus to help the transition to a democratic form of government”.
Reasons for the release
Political prisoners in Belarus were used as a “currency” in exchange of deals with EU, says Joerg Forbrig, the director of the Fund for Belarus Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Aleksandr Lukashenka needs better relations with the EU at the moment for number of reasons. According to Forbrig, first of all, Belarus economy is being constantly damaged by recession in Russia and economic sanctions applied to Russia’s allies so the country needs an alternative funding as Russia’s willingness and ability to support Belarus is becoming very limited. Secondly, the war in Ukraine showed how far Russia is prepared to go in terms of assure its sphere of influence, hence, leaning towards the EU would carve out a degree of safety. Thirdly, Lukashenka already allowed the OSCE to enter Belarus for long-term monitoring, which shows he is seeking the EU acceptance. Former opposition leader Mikalai Statkevich stated similar opinion when giving an interview to Charter 97. He said the release of political prisoners is Lukashenka’s attempt to get IMF funding as well as to warn Putin that if Russia does not support Belarus, Lukashenka will be leaning towards the West.
Mikalai Statkevich who was detained and jailed in 2010, was a candidate in presidential elections. He was sentenced to six years in prison on May 26, 2011 for organization of mass protests. The protest he organized was a peaceful demonstration organized by opposition parties and their supporters to protest the results of the election, which they believed were not transparent. Statkevich rejected the charge against him and said his prosecution was politically motivated because of his opposition activities. He was released on 23 August and remains under police supervision. Statkevich can no longer be a candidate in the 2015 election as the deadline for submitting the 100,000 signatures in support of a candidacy was August 21. Regarding the elections, he said there are "no good options" for the opposition in the upcoming election, adding that it will be difficult to take part in the election but that it would also be bad to boycott it.
Other released prisoners
Artsyom Prokopenko, one of the released prisoners, is a member of the anarchist movement who was sentenced on 18 May 2011 to seven years at a penal colony for "malicious hooliganism." Yury Rubtsou, was found guilty of insulting the judge in October 2014 and was sentenced to year and a half of restriction of freedom in an open-type correctional detention facility. However, his imprisonment was prolonged for two more years in May 2015. Amnesty International recognized Rubtsou a prisoner of conscience. Ihar Olinevich was kidnapped in Moscow by plain-clothes Belarusian officials on 28 November 2010. On 27 May 2011 and his co-accused Mikalay Dedkov were sentenced to 8 years in prison as they were accused of hooliganism committed with a group of people. Yauheny Vaskovich, a journalist of Bobruiski Kuryer newspaper, was sentenced to 7 years in prison in 2011 on accusations of setting fire to the KGB office in Babruisk.
Although, some of the political prisoners were released many of them still remain or are being put in Belarusian prison cells.
The US department of the State welcomed the release of political prisoners and considers it to be a positive development for Belarus and an important move towards normalizing relations with the US. The EU had also stated that the freeing of the political prisoners is an important progress in improving Belarus and EU relations.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has agreed to send long-term observers to Belarus beginning on August 26, the Belarusian Central Election Commission announced on August 21. However, Belarus remains a country with a lot of restricted freedoms. Belarus is rated Not Free in Freedom in the World 2015, Not Free in Freedom of the Press 2015 and receives a democracy score of 6.71 on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 as the worst possible score, in Nations in Transit 2015.
Radio free Europe, Charter 97 I II, Business Insider, EU Observer