Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has pardoned jailed former Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko, a close ally of imprisoned former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
In an announcement on his presidential website
, Yanukovych said he had signed a decree granting the pardon following appeals by Ukrainian and European Union officials, including former Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski and the former president of the European Parliament, Pat Cox.
A total of six people were pardoned, including former Environmental Protection Minister Heorhiy Filipchuk.
The press service of Ukraine's penitentiary service confirmed that all of the prisoners were released on April 7.
The presidential decree made no mention of Tymoshenko, who is currently serving a seven-year sentence for abuse of office that her supporters say is politically motivated.
Lutsenko had been serving a four-year sentence for embezzlement and ordering the illegal surveillance of suspects while investigating the poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko before his victory in the 2004 presidential election.
Speaking to reporters, Lutsenko said that he would remain in politics and hoped to meet with Tymoshenko soon.
"I will be in the streets, among the people," Lutsenko said.
He also addressed a rally in the capital, Kyiv, by telephone, saying: "I am sincerely happy that I will finally be among those who, like me, are dreaming about an independent and European Ukraine.
"Politics is being done not in the offices, it is being done in the squares. We've already won there and we will win again."
Yanukovych’s pardon comes just days after a court upheld Lutsenko’s sentence, which was set to run through December 2014.
Officials in Brussels have welcomed the move, with the European Union’s enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fuele, calling it a "first but important step aimed at resolving the problem of selective justice."
The imprisonment of Tymoshenko and Lutsenko have been seen as a major roadblock in Ukraine’s European integration.
The European Union has repeatedly postponed the signing of a key association agreement with Ukraine, citing concerns about democratic standards and politically motivated prosecutions.
In an opinion piece
published in "The New York Times" on April 5, Ukraine’s ambassador to the EU, Kostiantyn Yelisieiev, argued that Kyiv had made "tangible progress" on key reforms.
He said it would be an "illogical and tragic missed opportunity" if Brussels failed to sign an association agreement with Kyiv in November.
Yanukovych, who narrowly defeated Tymoshenko in the presidential election in 2010, said the pardons were part of efforts to "humanize" Ukrainian law and reduce the number of people held in custody.
In March, Yanukovych suggested Tymoshenko should "think about reimbursing the damage" she caused Ukraine during the 2009 gas deal with Russia that is behind her current jail term.
Lutsenko’s pardon comes amid mounting public anger over Yanukovych’s rule.
More than 5,000 protesters gathered in central Kyiv on April 2 to call on Yanukovych’s party to proceed with mayoral elections in the capital.
Opponents, including world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, say Yanukovych and his Party of Regions are reluctant to schedule elections out of fear they will lose.
With reporting by AFP and Interfax