Belarus Frees Journalist Jailed for Printing Islamic Cartoons

Belarusian authorities released an independent journalist from prison on Friday, his lawyer said, a decision that appeared to be part of the authoritarian president's efforts to improve ties with the West.

Alexander Sdvizhkov, a former deputy editor of the Zgoda newspaper, had been convicted in January of inciting religious hatred by publishing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad and been sentenced to three years in prison.

Belarus' Supreme Court mitigated Sdvizhkov's sentence Friday, reducing it to three months, which he has already served, said his lawyer, Maya Alexandrova.

Several opposition figures have been released since the start of the year in what President Alexander Lukashenko has called "an unprecedented step of goodwill" toward the United States and the European Union.

Lukashenko signaled a desire for better relations with the West after Russia's decision to sharply increase prices for oil exports to Belarus — exports on which the country's Soviet-style, centrally controlled economy had long depended.

The United States and the EU have imposed sanctions on Belarus, urging Lukashenko to free all political prisoners and allow more democratic freedoms before sanctions can be eased and relations normalized. Lukashenko has stifled dissent and independent media during his 13 years in power.

Two other prominent opposition activists, including Alexander Kozulin, who challenged Lukashenko in the 2006 election, remain in custody.