MINSK -- A Belarusian opposition party has sacked its jailed leader, seen in the West as the country's most prominent political prisoner, ahead of parliamentary elections in September.
The Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada) decided on August 3 to replace Alyaksandr Kazulin, a former presidential candidate who is serving a 5 1/2-year prison sentence for organizing protests against President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's 2006 reelection, by Anatol Lyaukovich, a former deputy head.
Kazulin, who had been involved in a personal dispute with Lyaukovich, was appointed the party's honorary chairman, a ceremonial position.
Kazulin last year refused an offer by Lukashenka to go free on condition he leaves Belarus, saying that amounted to exile. Western countries demand his release as a condition for resuming dialogue with Minsk, accused of violating basic rights.
His supporters argued that the move to replace Kazulin would play into the hands of the government.
"This is a terrible political mistake and it goes against common sense," senior party official Ihar Rynkevich told the party conference. "Only the authorities will benefit from depriving the party of Kazulin."
Lukashenka, in power since 1994, is accused in the West of muzzling the media, jailing opponents, and breaking up protests.
Parties are gearing up for elections on September 28, which Lukashenka has said will be free and fair. He said in May he hoped some opposition members would win seats, if only to dampen criticism from the European Union and the United States.
Some EU members have signaled that a fair election could help improve relations with Belarus, but Kazulin's release remains a key stumbling block.