The European Union has said it welcomes the early release of two prominent Belarus opposition activists in a move that follows sanctions imposed by the bloc. But a number of political prisoners still remain in jail.
The European Union on Sunday hailed the early release of two Belarus opposition figures freed from prison over the weekend.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement: "I welcome the news that former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov as well as his main campaign aide Dmitri Bondarenko are now free and will be able to rejoin their families and friends."
"I call on the authorities of Belarus to release unconditionally now also all other remaining political prisoners and to remove all restrictions on the enjoyment of their civil and political rights," she added.
The release of the two men comes as the EU steps up pressure on the country's authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, to free dissidents from prison. Three weeks ago, the bloc also agreed to impose a number of tough sanctions on the regime affecting top officials and companies.
Sannikov, a former deputy foreign minister, was a major rival to Lukashenko in controversial December 2010 election which Lukashenko won in a disputed landslide victory with 80 percent of the vote. He was arrested at a mass demonstration accusing Lukashenko of vote rigging.
Sannikov was sentenced to five years in prison in May last year on charges of organizing mass disturbances. His aide, Bondarenko, was sentenced to two years in jail.
Around a dozen dissidents remain in jail, including another former presidential candidate, Nikolai Statkevich.
Ashton praised the efforts of the two men released this weekend, saying "Andrei Sannikov and Dmitri Bondarenko stand out as prominent symbols for the tireless work and commitment of many for a democratic and European Belarus."
Lukashenko has been in office since 1994. He is accused of repressing all dissent and media freedom in his country, while maintaining communist-like economic structures in the former Soviet republic.
Eighty percent of industry is state owned, and the country is still dependent on Moscow for subsidies. Belarus saw 108 percent inflation last year during its ongoing economic crisis.
tj/rc (AFP, AP)