A decision to release two Belarusian prisoners of conscience including an opposition presidential candidate is a step in the right direction but the government now needs to free five others who have been in jail since 2011, Amnesty International said.
On 14 April, opposition presidential candidate Andrei Sannikau was freed from Vitba-3 prison colony in Vitebsk following a presidential pardon, which he has told family members he was pressured into seeking.
Zmitser Bandarenka, Coordinator of European Belarus and a member of Sannikau’s campaign team, was released from Mahiliou penal colony #15 the next day.
Four other prisoners of conscience remain behind bars after being jailed last year for taking part in post-election demonstrations in December 2010, and a fifth – prominent human rights defender Ales Bialiatski – has been jailed since November 2011 on trumped-up tax evasion charges.
“It’s a positive step that Belarusian opposition candidate Andrei Sannikau and Zmitser Bandarenka are now free, but prisoners of conscience should never be pressured into signing confessions or seeking pardons,” said John Dalhuisen, Director of Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Programme.
“The Belarusian authorities must immediately and unconditionally release the remaining prisoners of conscience, who were targeted for human rights activism and the peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of assembly and expression and are being held on unfounded charges.”
Zmitser Dashkevich, Eduard Lobau, Pavel Sevyarynets and Mykalau Statkevich are still being held, having been convicted in March and May 2011 and sentenced to jail terms of between two and six years for their role in the December 2010 protests.
Andrei Sannikau was sentenced to five years in prison in May 2011. At a meeting with his wife on 24 January 2012, he told her that on 20 November 2011 he had been forced to sign a request for clemency addressed to President Lukashenka after authorities intimated that the Sannikau’s son would be harmed.
On 24 November 2011, the opposition presidential candidate was transferred to Vitba-3 prison colony in Vitebsk district, after having been subjected to almost two weeks of constant transfer between detention centres.
Amnesty International believes that these frequent transfers were intended to pressure him physically and psychologically in order to extract a request for clemency.