MINSK, Belarus — 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.
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, 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 on a drive to court better political and economic ties with the West, and Washington had said Zeltser's release would help the process.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters that Washington welcomed news that Zeltser would be released.
"We're just happy that this American citizen, who really has been quite ill, is now able to leave prison," Kelly said.
He said Zeltser's 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.
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.