BRUSSELS -- The European Union says it will continue to press for the release of all political prisoners in Belarus following Minsk's decision to soften the charges against two former presidential candidates.
Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu and Vital Rymasheuski were among five opposition candidates arrested during the protests that followed the disputed December 19 election that returned Alyaksandr Lukashenka to power.
Both were initially charged with organizing mass unrest, which carries a prison term of up to 15 years. But in a statement on March 30, the Interior Ministry said the two now faced a lesser charge -- organizing acts that disturbed public order -- that carries a maximum prison term of three years.
Maja Kocijancic, the spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, told RFE/RL today that Brussels is gravely concerned about what kind of treatment those left in detention are receiving and underlined that the EU would continue to press for more concrete action from Minsk.
"We reiterate the demand that the Belarusian authorities immediately and unconditionally release and rehabilitate all those detained on political grounds," Kocijancic said.
The crackdown on the opposition triggered sanctions from the EU such as asset freezes and visa bans for Lukashenka and up to 170 of his closest associates.
EU leaders will next month also consider further measures such as economic sanctions on Belarusian companies.
Another presidential challenger in the December election, Ales Mikhalevich, has fled the country
and been granted asylum in the Czech Republic.