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Pardoned 'Tattoo Protester' In Belarus Calls Clemency A 'Trick'

Tatooed activist Yury Rubtsou in his native city of Homel on August 23 after being released from prison
Tatooed activist Yury Rubtsou in his native city of Homel on August 23 after being released from prison

A pardoned Belarusian rights activist who famously stripped off his shirt during his trial to reveal a "Lukashenka Go Away" message to the country's president has called the presidential clemency "a trick."

Yury Rubtsou told journalists in his native city of Homel on August 23 that "Lukashenka performed another trick, as he released people he had first taken hostage."

Rubtsou was among six political prisoners freed overnight on August 22-23 after President Alyaksandr Lukashenka issued a surprise order citing "the principle of humanism."

The group includes a former presidential candidate, Mikalay Statkevich.

Rubtsou said he was unaware of any planned release until prison guards pulled him out of solitary confinement at a penal colony in the eastern city of Babruysk on August 22.

He was taken to the gates of the prison colony without explanation, handed his clothes and personal belongings, and told he was free based on a presidential pardon.

Home in Homel, Rubtsou objected to the clemency, telling reporters that because his imprisonment was politically motivated and he never pleaded guilty, he should have been fully exonerated.

Rubtsou originally received a 25-day jail sentence in 2014 for wearing a T-shirt that had the identical "Lukashenka Go Away" phrase on it, but was ordered to perform manual labor for having allegedly insulted a judge at one of the related hearings.

In May 2014, he was given a two-year sentence for refusing to perform that forced labor, at a state-run facility, in a protest against the country's low salaries.

After his release, Rubtsou displayed to journalists the large "Lukashenko Go Away" tattoo on his chest and a shirt on which he had embroidered in jail the inscription: "By sentencing me they have deprived you of protesting your miserable salaries. Rubtsou."

The Belarusian government has said the average monthly salary in the country is $600, but Rubtsou says that figure is inflated.

Rubtsou was on hunger strike for 50 days, demanding higher average monthly salaries for ordinary Belarusians and calling on Lukashenka's government to release all political prisoners.

Lukashenka has tolerated little dissent or political opposition in his more than 20 years as president.

His order to pardon the six political prisoners came amid preparations for a presidential election scheduled for October 11.

The European Union's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, and its enlargement commissioner, Johannes Hahn, issued a statement on August 23 calling the releases a sign of "important progress towards the improvement of relations between the EU and Belarus."

U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby called the releases a "positive event for the people of Belarus and an important step toward normalizing relations with the United States."

In addition to Rubtsou, and Statkevich, Belarusian authorities released Mikalay Dzyadok, Ihar Olinevich, Yauhen Vaskovich, and Artsyom Prokopenko.

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    RFE/RL's Belarus Service

    RFE/RL's Belarus Service is one of the leading providers of news and analysis to Belarusian audiences in their own language. It is a bulwark against pervasive Russian propaganda and defies the government’s virtual monopoly on domestic broadcast media.