Belarus opposition leader and ex-presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov, who was jailed after he challenged strongman Alexander Lukashenko, was Saturday pardoned and released from prison.
"I want to thank everyone who supported me. It was more than support, it saved me," Sannikov, 58, told AFP by telephone, about an hour after his release from prison in Vitebsk in the country's northeast.
Sannikov, a former diplomat and deputy foreign minister, was the most prominent candidate to run against Lukashenko in controversial December 2010 polls which the strongman swept with almost 80 percent of the vote.
The long-time activist was arrested after riot police cracked down on a mass demonstration following the December 19 election, detaining more than 600 people including most of the opposition candidates.
Sannikov later said he was assaulted by police in custody and then placed in a prison run by the security service, still known as the KGB in Belarus, a former Soviet republic.
He was sentenced in May last year to five years in prison on charges of organizing mass disturbances.
His wife, journalist and fellow activist Iryna Khalip, later warned that he was in danger of being tortured and murdered in prison, and rights group Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience.
Khalip was handed a two-year suspended sentence for her role in the protests. The couple have a son, Danik, 4, whom the state had at one point threatened to place under guardianship.
Sannikov, a veteran diplomat who was once posted at the UN in New York, became an activist when he resigned in 1995 in protest against a referendum called by Lukashenko to extend his term and increase his powers.
He co-founded the pro-democracy Charter 97 movement and won the Austrian Bruno Kreisky prize in 2005 for his human rights activism.
On Saturday, his lawyer Andrei Varvachevitch was the first to report his release from custody.
Sannikov, speaking to AFP, said he was healthy except for a chill. But he refused to comment on his feelings regarding Lukashenko, who had granted his request for a pardon.
The European Union and United States, which have denounced the repression in Belarus and what they called Sannikov's political imprisonment, have imposed sanctions on the isolated regime.
Another former opposition candidate, Nikolai Statkevich, remains in jail.
Lukashenko has been branded Europe's last dictator by Washington for his persecution of all forms of public dissent against his 18-year rule.
The EU last month added 12 more people and 29 companies to a blacklist for the continuing repression of civil society by Lukashenko's regime.
Independent political analyst Alexei Korol said Saturday that Sannikov's release was the result of those sanctions.
"Lukashenko hopes to regain the ability to manoeuvre between east (Russia) and west. I think other people will be freed, but not right away. They continue to be hostages in the political bargaining."© ANP/AFP