Belarus' authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko has freed six political prisoners, including a former presidential candidate, in what appears to be an overture to the West.
Lukashenko's office released a statement Saturday calling the pardons a humanitarian gesture.
Those freed include Mikola Statkevich who ran for president in the last election in 2010. He was sentenced to six years in prison on charges of organizing street protests against the vote, which the opposition and the West condemned as rigged.
The European Union had demanded Statkevich's release.
The U.S. has called Lukashenko "Europe's last dictator" for his iron-fisted rule, suppression of free speech, and lack of tolerance for dissent.
He faces reelection to a fifth term in October and there is little doubt he will win.
But with the Belarusian economy in tatters and relations with Russia cooling off, Lukashenko has made efforts that appear aimed at ingratiating himself with the West. He hosted peace talks between Ukraine and the Russian-backed separatists fighting in Ukraine’s east, and attended an EU partnership summit in Latvia in May.