(Reuters) – Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said on Tuesday that he was likely to issue an amnesty to some of his jailed political opponents who had taken part in protests against his re-election but were now seriously ill in prison with cancer.

Lukashenko, in power since 1994, is one of Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin’s closest allies and stands accused by his opponents and Western rights groups of human rights abuses and jailing opponents on a variety of charges.

His re-election to a sixth term in 2020 sparked unprecedented street protests by demonstrators accusing him of rigging the vote. Police detained participants en masse – rights groups say more than 25,000 – in the months after the election.

“Don’t be surprised if our people who are seriously ill — that is what is being written about them — are released in a few days,” Lukashenko told a gathering marking Belarus’ national holiday, according to the official BelTA news agency.

“Those who did not escape to places not that far away and who were smashing up or undermining the country in 2020. These people are truly ill, mostly with cancer.”

Lukashenko did not identify those who might qualify for the amnesty, timed to coincide with the holiday and the World War Two liberation of the capital Minsk from Nazi invaders.

The opposition rights group Vyasna lists 1,403 political prisoners in the ex-Soviet state. It said that as of May, 254 political detainees whose health was at risk, including 92 who were seriously ill and 63 over the age of 60.

The Belarusian-language service of U.S.-funded Radio Liberty said those suffering from cancer included regional politician Grigory Kostusyov, journalist Kseniya Lutskina, musician Pavel Kuchinsky, religious activist Pavel Kuchinsky and Ruslan Slutsky, accused of sabotaging rail lines.

Lukashenko’s hold on power was strengthened after Putin assured him of support in 2020 amid the protests. The Belarusian leader in 2022 allowed his country’s territory to be used as a staging post for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Most of Lukashenko’s most prominent opponents have fled abroad, many to neighbouring Lithuania and Poland, Those in exile include defeated presidential candidate Svitlana Tikhanouskaya, who now heads the opposition.

(Reporting by Ron Popeski; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)