Belarus releases 10 political prisoners, but 1,400 remain, human rights group says

Belarus releases 10 political prisoners, but 1,400 remain, human rights group says

By Mark Trevelyan

(Reuters) – Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has freed at least 10 political prisoners, rights activists said on Thursday, including an opposition figure suffering from cancer.

But the rare pardon still leaves some 1,400 people behind bars for political activities, most of them arrested after peaceful mass protests in 2020 and convicted on a range of charges linked to alleged extremism.

Human rights group Viasna said it was aware of the cases of three women and seven men who had been released.

The only one whose name has been revealed so far by his relatives is Ryhor Kastusiou, 67, a former opposition party leader and presidential candidate. He was arrested in 2021 and sentenced the following year to 10 years in prison after being convicted of plotting against the government to seize power. After his arrest, he was diagnosed with cancer.

Activists said their joy at the release was bittersweet.

“It’s a great joy, of course, almost childish. But it’s a joy through tears, there is also anger for what people have to endure,” said Inna Kovalenok, a representative of a group of families campaigning for the prisoners’ release.

Andrei Stryzhak, director of an organization called Bysol that raises funds to support political prisoners and their families, said it was an illusion to think that the authorities had become more humane.

“To believe that something has suddenly changed in the minds of those who torture, rape and kill to maintain power is a dangerous fantasy that borders on treason and crime,” he posted on Telegram.

Russian President Alexander Lukashenko announced an amnesty this week to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Belarus’ liberation from Nazi rule. The state-run Belta news agency said the measure would apply to about 7,850 prisoners, including minors, pregnant women, pensioners and people with tuberculosis or cancer.

People convicted of crimes against the state or extremist and terrorist activities were excluded, but Lukashenko said there would be some exceptions for the seriously ill.

Lukashenko, in power since 1994, led a violent crackdown in 2020 to quell mass protests that followed an election that the opposition and Western governments accused of being largely rigged.

Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, who ran against him in that election and now leads the opposition in exile, welcomed the release of some prisoners but said others were still being held.

“Political trials and arrests continue uninterrupted in #Belarus,” Tsikhanouskaya posted on X. “The repression does not stop for a day and we will not stop our fight for freedom.”

Tsikhanouskaya’s husband, Syarhei, is among the most high-profile prisoners, along with Nobel Peace Prize winner Ales Bialiatski and Maria Kolesnikova, a protest leader who tore up her passport in September 2020 to prevent security services from forcing her out of the country across the border into Ukraine.

(Reporting by Mark Trevelyan, editing by Angus MacSwan)