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Belarus Leader Pardons U.S. Lawyer, Seeks Better Ties

Emanuel Zeltser was convicted in August 2008.

Emanuel Zeltser was convicted in August 2008.

MINSK (Reuters) -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has pardoned a U.S. lawyer jailed on charges of industrial espionage, and expressed the hope that the move would help strained relations with Washington.

A statement issued by Lukashenka's press service said Emanuel Zeltser, imprisoned last year at the height of a diplomatic row, had been pardoned by presidential decree.

Lukashenka had earlier met a U.S. Congressional delegation.

"As this is important for America and our relations and will help create a normalization of our relations, I am signing this decree today," Lukashenka's press service quoted him as saying.

Earlier today, U.S. Senator Benjamin Cardin (Democrat, Maryland), the chairman of the Senate Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, welcomed news of Zelter’s expected release.

And representative Robert Aderholt (Republican, Alabama) said, "I believe that [Zeltser's release] would be a first step that would enable us to keep talking to each other."

Zeltser was arrested last year at the height of tensions between Belarus and the United States, which has long spearheaded accusations that Lukashenka crushed fundamental human rights.

The row led to the expulsion of the U.S. ambassador in March 2008 and the post is still vacant.

Belarus has for the past two years made various concessions to improve relations with the West, particularly the European Union, but ties with Washington have remained strained.

Zeltser was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison in August last year. The U.S. State Department has repeatedly called for his release on health grounds; he underwent hospital treatment last November for a back ailment.