The U.S. government has called Belarus’s decision to release a former presidential candidate and his campaign manager from prison “a significant step,” but also called on Minsk to immediately release all remaining political prisoners it is holding.
Andrey Sannikau and Zmitser Bandarenka were freed despite being given multiyear sentences for their role in democracy protests following the December 2010 reelection of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
A statement from the U.S. State Department said, “Enhanced respect for democracy and human rights remains central to improving relations between the United States and Belarus.”
In an interview with Reuters just days after his release, Sannikau said the Belarusian government had placed provocateurs in prison in a bid to get him to break his spirit and take his life.
"When I realized that my just sitting in jail was over and that the torture was beginning, the provocations beginning, I realized that the only way to stop these provocations, or not even to stop but probably just to slow them down at that moment, was to write a clemency appeal, because it was a quite massive operation against me. I realized that I simply might not survive," Sannikau explained.
Sannikau applauded the support he received from people in Belarus and the reaction it triggered elsewhere.
"I can't remember [ever seeing] such solidarity, as was shown [to me] this time -- such support that I felt personally, and I think it was the first foundation [for the following international reaction]. The reaction of the U.S., the European Union, and the initial reaction of Russia were connected with that Belarusian solidarity," Sannikau said.
Sannikau's release could help ease tensions between Minsk and the European Union, which had been lobbying for his freedom and had recalled all its ambassadors from Belarus in February.
Belarusian activists say there are 10 remaining political prisoners in the country, including former presidential candidate Mikola Statkevich.
With reporting by Reuters