Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko
Following the release last week of two opposition leaders from prison in Belarus, the UN human rights office called on April 20 on the country’s authorities to begin dialogue with the opposition and to unconditionally release all prisoners who are serving sentences for exercising their fundamental human rights, the UN News Centre said.
"Many of these individuals have been imprisoned for their involvement in the events of December 19 2010, when a mainly peaceful opposition rally in downtown Minsk on the evening of the election day was dispersed by police and security forces," said the spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Rupert Colville, at a news conference in Geneva.
According to OHCHR, about 600 opposition supporters, journalists and human rights defenders had been arrested, including Andrei Sannikov, one of the candidates in the presidential elections, and his aide Dmitri Bandarenko.
More than 40 of these opposition leaders and activists were subsequently sentenced to prison terms. Sannikov had been sentenced to five years in prison and Bandarenka to two years, but both were released last week
"We call on the Government of Belarus to unconditionally release all those who remain imprisoned for their peaceful involvement in the events of December 19, as well as other human rights defenders, such as Ales Bialiatski, and opposition activists like Syarhey Kavalenka," Colville said.
Andrei Sannikov, who challenged authoritarian incumbent president Alexander Lukashenko in 2010 elections, was released on April 14. His campaign manager Bondarenko was freed the following day. Sannikov was serving a five-year prison term for organizing protests in 2010 against widely-perceived election fraud. Bondarenko was serving a two-year term.
The Voice of America reported that the releases of Sannikov and Bondarenko followed new sanctions imposed by the European Union on the Lukashenko government, which has long been the target of Western ire for its widespread and documented rights abuses. Late last month, EU foreign ministers agreed to freeze the assets and block bank accounts of nearly 30 Belarusian companies. Twelve Belarusian officials were also hit with travel sanctions.
On April 14, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolai Mladenov welcomed the release of Sannikov and Bondarenko was an encouraging first step, "and I look forward to the release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners". The completion of this process is a major prerequisite for Belarus to gradually reintegrate in the international community, Mladenov said.
The conduct of the parliamentary elections in the autumn will be the next decisive milestone. They have to be free, democratic and multiparty and to give the citizens of Belarus a real choice, Bulgaria's Foreign Minister said.
"I am convinced that this is the only way for Belarus to be a proud, free, democratic and independent state, as its citizens deserve," Mladenov said.