MINSK, Belarus — An ailing American lawyer who was imprisoned in Belarus last year on charges of using fake documents and attempted industrial espionage has walked free after a presidential pardon.
Emanuel Zeltser, a 55-year-old diabetic, was sentenced to three years in prison in August 2008 after being convicted on charges his supporters called politically motivated.
In November, Zeltser was placed in a prison hospital after arriving at a penal colony in eastern Belarus, where he was denied medicine, according to lawyers.
On leaving the prison clinic in the eastern town of Mogilyov on Tuesday night, Zeltser said: "I am glad about my freedom."
"I have problems with my health, I plan to get better. I am not making any plans," he said by telephone outside the prison. He refused to comment further.
Zeltser, slightly limping, was met by U.S. officials and entered a car with them to head for the U.S. Embassy in Minsk.
President Alexander Lukashenko signed a decree pardoning Zeltser earlier Tuesday.
Belarus and its authoritarian leader are currently on a drive to court better political and economic ties with the West, and Washington had said Zeltser's release would help the process along.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said of Zeltser's release: "the United States welcomes this positive step."
He added, in a statement, that consular officials were working with his family "to arrange his swift and safe return to the United States."
Earlier, on news that Zeltser would be released, Kelly had said that his imprisonment was "a major obstacle in our bilateral relations. We still have other concerns, of course, with some of the actions of the Belarusian government. So we're very happy that this one obstacle has been removed, and we'll review our policy as necessary."
Expert on organized crime
The Russian-born Zeltser is a high-profile lawyer who headed the non-governmental American Russian Law Institute in New York. He once sued the Bank of New York for $2 billion on behalf of investors who had lost their deposits.
Zeltser is a renowned expert on organized crime and money laundering, particularly in former Soviet republics.
His clients have included Pavel Borodin, a former Kremlin aide who was accused of money laundering by a Swiss court, and Badri Patarkatsishvili, the late Georgian billionaire who was a bitter opponent of Georgia's current administration.
Belarusian authorities said that fake documents Zeltser was carrying were tied to Patarkatsishvili's business interests.
Zeltser's brother, Mark, has said that the Zeltser had flown to Minsk to check on the status of several of Patarkatsishvili's assets. Some observers in Belarus suggested that Zeltser's arrest may have been arranged by those trying to illegally obtain Patarkatsishvili's considerable assets.
The lawyer's arrest came at the height of a diplomatic spat between Washington and Minsk that resulted in the expulsion of the U.S. envoy.
Zeltser, who emigrated from the Soviet Union to the U.S. in the 1970s, has maintained his innocence. He went on hunger strike earlier this year to protest the failure of authorities to review his case under new amnesty laws.
Belarus was once labeled Europe's last dictatorship by U.S. officials. But in recent months, Lukashenko — criticized in the West for silencing dissenting media and taking political prisoners — has adopted liberal reforms that have resulted in the lifting of EU sanctions such as a travel ban for Belarusian officials.
Call for further reforms
U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin, a Maryland Democrat whose delegation met Lukashenko earlier Tuesday, said it wasn't enough.
"We welcome the release of Emanuel Zeltser on humanitarian grounds. However, we made it clear to President Lukashenko today that the only way to improve the relationship between our countries is for him to increase political freedom and respect for human rights," Cardin said in a statement.
Cardin called on Minsk to make further reform as outlined in the Belarus Democracy Act adopted by U.S. Congress in 2004. The act allocates U.S. funds to Belarusian opposition parties, NGOs and independent media outlets and forbids humanitarian donations to the Belarusian government if no liberal reforms are made.
Lukashenko in comments carried by Russia's ITAR-Tass news agency urged Washington to cancel the act by year-end.
"Don't tell me that the Belarus Democracy Act is beneficial for us," he said, claiming the U.S. was morally obliged to send financial aid to help the cleanup efforts in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. One-third of Belarus remains contaminated.
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