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EU, US welcome release of top Belarus activist Ales Belyatsky

MINSK, Belarus--The European Union and the United States have welcomed the unexpected release of prominent Belarus rights activist Ales Belyatsky, while urging the government to free other political prisoners as well.

Belyatsky had been imprisoned since 2011 as part of President Alexander Lukashenko's crackdown on the beleaguered opposition.

Immediately upon arriving in the capital Minsk from his high-security penal colony on Saturday, the 51-year-old rights campaigner pledged to press ahead with his work that has rattled the authorities for years.

“I will do what I was doing before,” said the shaven-headed activist, dressed in a black T-shirt and black jacket.

“I've been released thanks to the solidarity and support of the entire global community,” he told several dozen supporters who greeted him at the railway station.

“That is why I've been released one year, eight months early. I believe that other political prisoners should be released soon.”

Belyatsky, director of human rights organization Vyasna (Spring), which helps victims of political repression under Lukashenko, has won several top European awards and has been repeatedly nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

In November 2011, he was jailed for four-and-a-half years on tax evasion charges on the grounds that Vyasna used bank accounts in Poland and Lithuania to collect donations for helping political prisoners, a criminal activity under Belarussian laws.

'An important step'

A statement from the office of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the freeing of Ales Belyatsky was “an important step by the Belarusian authorities and should be followed without delay by the release of all the remaining political prisoners.”

The statement appeared to hold out a possible review of EU sanctions should Minsk move to free others and restore their civic rights, saying “this could contribute to improving relations between the European Union and Belarus.”

Washington also hailed what it called a “positive development,” adding: “We reiterate our call for the government of Belarus to immediately and unconditionally release all the political prisoners who remain in detention and restore their political rights.”

The EU last October renewed sanctions against the close Russian ally, saying it had failed to make sufficient progress on human rights.

Belarus arrested scores of people after a massive opposition protest on the night of the December 2010 presidential election.

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