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U.S. Lawyer Jailed In Belarus Begins Hunger Strike

Emanuel Zeltser
Emanuel Zeltser
MINSK -- A U.S. lawyer serving three years in a Belarusian jail for industrial espionage has begun a hunger strike to prompt authorities to review his case under a recent amnesty law, his lawyer has said.

Emanuel Zeltser, 55, was arrested last year at the height of a diplomatic row between Belarus and the United States, which led to the expulsion of the U.S. envoy in March. Zeltser was convicted in August.

The U.S. State Department has repeatedly called for his release on health grounds. He underwent hospital treatment in November for a back ailment.

His lawyer Dzmitry Haryachka told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that Zeltser had to start the hunger strike to protest the protraction of the processing of his documents for early release.

"He said he was in a situation where the only way he could draw attention to himself was through a hunger strike," Haryachka told Reuters.

A law came into force at the beginning of this year that offered an amnesty to about 4,500 inmates jailed for less than six years if they had served at least a third of their term.

Haryachka said Zeltser fell into that category.

"He simply asks that this law be applied to him, that at least his case should be examined. His case fell under the rules of the law the moment it came into force," he said.

Zeltser arrived in Belarus to represent Josef Kay, a relative of late Georgian businessmen Badri Patarkatsishvili, who was a prominent opponent of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

The West has criticized long-serving Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka for years for jailing his opponents, muzzling the media, and rigging his reelection to a third term in 2006.

He has taken steps toward a reconciliation with the European Union in the past year, releasing the last of what the West called political prisoners and allowing opposition papers to be published in the country.

The EU then suspended a travel ban on Lukashenka, who made his first trip to a West European country -- Italy -- in April. But ties with the United States remain frozen and no new U.S. envoy has been sent to Minsk.