Belarus frees veteran Lukashenko opponent from prison, rights group says

By Mark Trevelyan

(Reuters) -Veteran Belarus opposition politician Ryhor Kastusiou has been freed from prison, human rights news site Charter '97 said on Wednesday, a day after President Alexander Lukashenko announced an amnesty for some of his jailed opponents.

Kastusiou, 67, is a former opposition party leader and presidential candidate who was arrested in 2021 and sentenced the following year to 10 years in a penal colony after being convicted of plotting against the government to seize power. Following his arrest, he was diagnosed with cancer.

Belarusian rights group Viasna says there are more than 1,400 political prisoners in the east European country, where Lukashenko staged a violent crackdown in 2020 to suppress mass protests following an election that the opposition and Western governments said he had heavily rigged.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who ran against Lukashenko in that election and now leads the opposition in exile, said a number of other prisoners had been freed. It was not immediately clear who, and how many, they were.

"Today we witnessed the first cases of some political prisoners being released in #Belarus. I am glad to see these people free & reunited with their loved ones," she posted on X.

She said all political prisoners should be released, not just humanitarian cases.

Lukashenko, in power since 1994, is one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's closest allies. Rights groups say police detained more than 25,000 people in the months following the 2020 election.

In comments reported by the official BelTA news agency on Tuesday, Lukashenko said: "Don't be surprised if our people who are seriously ill... are released in a few days."

He said the amnesty would apply to people who were "smashing up or undermining the country in 2020" and who were "truly ill, mostly with cancer".

The announcement was timed to coincide with a public holiday and the anniversary of the country's liberation from the Nazis in World War Two.

(Reporting by Mark TrevelyanEditing by Gareth Jones)