KYIV, Ukraine, April 8, 2013 /PRNewswire/ -- Senior European leaders have warmly welcomed the decision by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to pardon and release the former Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko and five others, who had been serving sentences for crimes ranging from embezzlement to abuse of office, in what is being hailed as a sign that Ukraine is unequivocably committed to European integration. Lutsenko is a close ally of jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and was freed despite the fact that just days ago a court upheld his sentence and ordered him to remain in custody until December 2014. The decision was immediately welcomed by European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy Stefan Füle, who only last month praised the "encouraging signals from Kyiv." In his Twitter feed, Füle called the pardons the "first but important step aimed at resolving the problem of selective justice." Former European Commission President Romano Prodi, who has urged the EU to embrace a wide-ranging free trade pact with Ukraine as "a strategic move very much in Europe's interest," also praised the move by President Yanukovych. "I am very pleased to see Ukraine's leader acting on humanitarian grounds, and I sincerely hope that my colleagues across the European Union will now move ahead to sign an Association Agreement with Ukraine later this year," said Prodi. " Ukraine," he added, "is important to Europe as a market of 46 million people, as a source of economic growth, and, with its vast shale gas reserves, for our energy security. It can also serve as the bridge between Europe and Russia." In Poland, President Bronislaw Komorowski said the pardon was "a good step that will help restore a good image of Ukraine." The President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, called the ex-minister's release an encouraging move, saying that "fair and independent justice is needed in Ukraine, and the release of Mr. Lutsenko is a step in the right direction." In Kyiv, Jorge Zukoski, president of the American Chamber of Commerce, in Ukraine, said the business community also welcomed the pardons. "It is perceived as a concrete step by senior policy makers towards implementing European values at a time when there is uncertainty in regards to the ultimate path Ukraine will take regarding geopolitical alignment," Mr Zukoski said. Mr. Yanukovych's office said the pardons were a move to "humanise" Ukrainian law and reduce the number of people in prison. A government spokesman added Ukraine is listening and responding to what the world says - especially Europe, with which it expects to sign an Association Agreement in November. " Ukraine has a positive dialogue with the EU and these pardons show we are about actions, not just words," a Government spokesman said. "Humanising our laws goes deeper than what happened today (Sunday)," the spokesman said. "In the past two years we have totally overhauled our criminal procedures code in line with international standards of justice. But yes, Yanukovych has signalled the door is ajar."