The European Commission has welcomed a move by the Belarusian leadership to pardon prominent opposition leader Alyaksandr Kazulin from the remainder of a 5 1/2-year prison sentence.
Kazulin, who was arrested in March 2006, was temporarily released from prison on August 16 to attend the funeral of his father-in-law. It was subsequently reported that he had been given a pardon by Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
In a statement, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner hailed the pardon as a "positive step, long expected by the European Union."
Ferrero-Waldner expressed hope Kazulin's release would prompt "positive momentum" in relations between Brussels and Minsk, and called on Belarus to ensure "the immediate release" of its remaining political prisoners.
RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported that Kazulin has confirmed his pardon, but has postponed a press conference until August 20.
In a statement issued on August 18, the 52-year-old Kazulin -- who had been described by Amnesty International as a "prisoner of conscience" -- said he accepts his release as a sign of fairness, but cannot accept a pardon on moral grounds, because he did nothing to merit the sentence in the first place.
Kazulin, a former rector of Belarusian State University who unsuccessfully challenged Lukashenka in the country's March 2006 presidential election, was arrested on charges of hooliganism and inciting mass disorder for his role in public protests following the ballot.
In February of this year, Kazulin was allowed to briefly leave prison to attend the funeral of his wife, Iryna, who died after a long battle with breast cancer.
Kazulin, who twice staged hunger strikes during his imprisonment -- one of which lasted 53 days -- said Lukashenka had offered in 2007 to free him on condition he leave Belarus. The opposition leader said he refused the offer.
Brussels and Washington have consistently urged Belarus, described by many as "Europe's last dictatorship," to free its political prisoners and put an end to the repression of dissidents.
RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report