Belarus Oppositionist Granted Early Release

MINSK -- A Belarussian opposition leader whose imprisonment was condemned by the United States and the European Union has been released two months before the end of his sentence.

Zmitser Dashkevich, a leader of the Young Front organization, said he was released late Wednesday night. He was imprisoned in November 2006 after being convicted on charges of engaging in activities for an unregistered political organization.

Dashkevich is one of the most prominent members of the beleaguered opposition to authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko. The United States, which has characterized Lukashenko as "the last dictator in Europe," has frozen some Belarussian government assets, imposed travel restrictions on some officials and threatened more sanctions if Belarus does not ease pressure on the opposition.

Washington and Brussels had demanded Dashkevich's release. Belarussian officials declined to comment on the release.

"Lukashenko stole more than a year of my life and for my freedom I should thank not him, but rights defenders and the U.S. and EU," Dashkevich said.

Lukashenko has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994, quashing dissent and opposition groups and resisting free-market reforms. He remains broadly popular, particularly outside the capital, with disparate opposition movements in the country of 10 million drawing only small crowds to infrequent rallies.

Lukashenko says his line on dissent and policies of subsidies and social benefits have spared Belarussians the upheavals of nearby former Soviet states.

A Belarus court jailed and fined 12 of about 2,000 activists who joined an unauthorized rally Monday that was broken up by police. The opposition movement Vyasna said the participants were handed 15-day sentences for public order offenses and fined up to $700.

The activists were protesting new regulations that small entrepreneurs say deny them the right to hire workers outside their immediate families or oblige them to reregister and be subject to higher taxes.