A prominent Belarusian human rights activist has been released from jail in a move seen as a gesture from the country’s authoritarian leader to improve relations with the West.
Ales Bialiatski was freed on Saturday nearly three years into his sentence, 20 months ahead of schedule.
The 51-year-old leader of the Vyasna rights group was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 and received an array of international awards while behind bars.
His group has provided legal assistance to thousands of Belarusians arrested or imprisoned for challenging President Alexander Lukashenko’s undemocratic policies.
He was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to four years in prison in November 2011. Western governments criticised the trial as politically vindictive.
Supporters on Saturday greeted Bialiatski at a train station in the capital, Minsk, after travelling from prison in the city of Bobruisk.
“The international support and the support back home, this is what brought about my release,” Bialiatski told reporters.
“I will continue to do what I’ve been doing.”
Bialiatski said he was treated “badly and brutally” in prison, including regular periods of solitary confinement.
Rights advocates say six people remain in jail in Belarus for political activism, including former presidential candidate Nikolai Statkevich.
Lukashenko and his associates were slapped with international sanctions in reply to their crackdown on opposition figures.
Analysts say Beliatski’s release could reflect Lukashenko’s wish to mend ties with the West at a time when Belarus is at odds with its longtime partner, Russia, over the conflict in Ukraine.