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Cancer-stricken Belarusian political prisoner is released after authoritarian president’s promise

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — A prominent Belarusian opposition politician suffering from a severe form of cancer was released Wednesday from prison, his son-in-law said, three years after his arrest in the crackdown on dissent by the country’s authoritarian ruler, Alexander Lukashenko.

Ryhor Kastusiou’s release came a day after President Lukashenko announced he would free seriously ill political who were jailed in the 2020 protests against his rule, including those who were “breaking up the country and tearing it apart.”

The protests rocked Belarus after Lukashenko’s disputed reelection to a sixth term in office. Since first taking office in 1994, Lukashenko has persistently stifled opposition.

During the crackdown following the vote, more than 35,000 people were arrested, thousands were brutally beaten in custody, journalists were jailed and dozens of independent news organizations and human rights groups were closed.

According to the Viasna human rights center, there are currently 1,409 political prisoners in Belarus, including Ales Bialiatski, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022. At least six have died behind bars, activists say.

The United Nations had appealed to Belarusian authorities over the health of Kastusiou, who ran against Lukashenko in the 2010 presidential elections.

Independent analyst Valery Karbalevich said Lukashenko’s move may have come with the 2025 presidential election in mind.

“Lukashenko clearly wants to change his image as a cannibal,” Karbalevich told The Associated Press. But even if “authorities release a dozen political prisoners and stop there, it will be a one-time action, a beautiful gesture, and not a sustainable political trend.”

According to Kastusiou’s son-in-law, Dmitry Antonchyk, he arrived home and reunited with his wife, looking “tired but happy.”

Lukashenko, who spoke on the eve of Belarus’ Independence Day, did not say how many political prisoners would be freed.

“These are really seriously ill people, mostly with cancer,” Lukashenko said on Tuesday. “We approach and treat everyone humanely.”

A Viasna representative, Pavel Sapelka told The Associated Press that as of the beginning of May, at least 254 political prisoners were known to be at particular health risk and 91 were in serious condition.

Belarusian prisons torture all political prisoners by depriving them of medical care and information from the outside world, Sapelka said.

“A healthy person in a Belarusian prison quickly becomes sick,” he said.

Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, whose husband Siarhei Tsikhanouski was sentenced to 19 1/2 years in prison, told the AP that 15-20 people are arrested every day in Belarus for political reasons and “the repression continues.”

“The urgent release of people in critical condition is not a political issue, but a humanitarian one,” Tsikhanouskaya said. “They should be released without any conditions.”

The U.S. State Department has called for the release of all political prisoners in Belarus.

“We honor the courage of the 1,500 Belarusian political prisoners held captive simply for trying to exercise the freedoms independence is supposed to convey,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday in a statement to mark Belarus’ Independence Day.

Associated Press