An ailing American lawyer who was imprisoned in Belarus
last year on charges of using fake documents and attempted industrial
espionage walked free Tuesday night after a presidential pardon.
In November, Zeltser was placed in a prison hospital after arriving at a
penal colony in eastern Belarus, where he was denied medicine, according
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
Belarus and its authoritarian leader are on a drive to court better
political and economic ties with the West, and Washington had said
Zeltser's release would help the process.
President Alexander Lukashenko, left, welcomes a group of U.S.
Congressmen, no names given, in Minsk, on Tuesday, June 30, 2009. At
the meeting Lukashenko underscored the need to reactivate positive
trends in Belarus-U.S. trade, Belarusian news agency Belta reported
Tuesday. (AP Photo/ Belta, Nikolai Petrov)
U.S. State Department spokesman Ian
Kelly said of Zeltser's release "the United States welcomes this
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."
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.
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
Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD),
center, Commission Ranking Minority Member Congressman Chris Smith
(R-NJ), left, U.S. Senator Lloyd Doggett, (D-Texas ), right, attend
news conference in U.S. Embassy in Minsk, Belarus, Tuesday, June 30,
2009. A U.S. senator says the president of Belarus is promising to
free an ailing American lawyer who was imprisoned in the former
Soviet country last year on espionage charges. (AP Photo/Sergei
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
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
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
Associated Press writer David Nowak contributed to this report from
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