US Lawyer Imprisoned in Belarus on Widely Denounced Charges Freed After Pardon





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 to lawyers.

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 on a drive to court better political and economic ties with the West, and Washington had said Zeltser's release would help the process.

Belarusian 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 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."

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 amnesty laws.

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 Grits)  (AP)

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.

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.

Associated Press writer David Nowak contributed to this report from Moscow.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.


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