EU, US take aim at Belarus repressions

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EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and her US counterpart Hillary Clinton have strongly condemned yesterday (23 December) the violent repression by the Belarus authorities following presidential elections in December, which observers say were rigged.

In a joint statement, Ashton and Clinton called for the immediate release of over 600 demonstrators, including presidential candidates, who were taken to custody following the recent presidential elections in Belarus.

Five former candidates and 14 other opposition activists detained for protests over Sunday's vote will remain in custody and may face charges of "organising mass disorder," a policy officer said.

They could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

Several hundred Belarussian riot police used batons and shields to disperse a crowd of at least 10,000 protesting at the election of President Alexander Lukashenko for his fourth term and demanding a second round of voting.

Many were beaten and more than 600 activists, journalists and ordinary Belarussians were arrested.

"Respect for democracy and human rights remain central to improving Belarus’s relations with the United States and the European Union. Without substantial progress in these areas, relations will not improve," Ashton and Clinton said.

Russian support

Russia sent the opposite signal. The Kremlin's ambassador to Minsk said Moscow supported legal action against the leaders of the demonstrations.

"They mainly sought the West's refusal to recognise the elections in Belarus," Alexander Surikov said at a press conference. He added, however, that the remaining "mass" of those detained should be forgiven.

The renewed support of Russia, which declared days before the election that it would abandon duties on oil exports to Belarus, came after a tumultuous year between the two neighbors, marked by frequent mutual bickering.

Belarussian finances hugely depend on its relations with Russia – its largest export market – and the oil export duty deal is to save Belarus some $4 billion (€3 billion) next year.

Among the detained candidates are poet Vladimir Neklyayev, former deputy foreign minister Andrei Sannikov, and a leader of Belarus Christian Democratic party, Vitaly Rymashevsky.

Neklyayev was beaten by the police and detained at the start of the protests. Sannikov and Rymashevsky were also badly beaten, their lawyers said, although Lukashenko said after the election that the police acted within the law.

"When I saw my client he was in a horrible state," Pavel Sapelko, Sannikov's lawyer, told Reuters. "His leg was beaten or twisted, he couldn't move on his own, bruises on hands. He did not receive any medical treatment."

Lukashenko vowed on Monday to thwart any attempt at "revolution" and said there would be no more "senseless democracy" in Belarus after police broke up the protests.

Lukashenko, 56, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994, was officially declared victor with nearly 80 percent of the vote. The opposition said the vote was rigged and the real level of support was far lower.

(EURACTIV with Reuters)

MEP Jacek Protasiewicz (EPP, Poland), Chairman of the European Parliament Delegation for relations with Belarus, said in a statement:

“I am calling on the Belarusian authorities to release from prisons all former presidential candidates on their own recognizance, namely Uladzimir Neklayaew, Ales Mikhalevich, Vital Rymashewski, Andrey Sannikaw, Nikolay Statkevich, as well as others who are facing criminal charges on the basis of an Article 293.1 and 2 of the Criminal Code.

“Moreover I call on the Belarusian government to refrain from penalizing and to immediately release hundreds of people, including the students and their teachers, who have been detained since afore mentioned rally took place, for peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of assembly and expression.

“I strongly condemn the assaults against the journalists who covered the events of the Election Day. Mass police violence which effected in injuring reporters, destroying their equipment and detaining them, contradicts the freedom of expression and freedom of media. I call on the Belarusian authorities to immediately liberate all the media representatives.

“I remind that these violations of the fundamental values such as freedom
of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of media contradict the possibility for Belarus of a partnership and cooperation offered by the European Union.”

Relations between the EU and Belarus have been slowly improving after the low-point reached in the aftermath of the 19 March 2006 presidential election.

Parliamentary elections which took place on 28 September 2008 also fell short of democratic standards: the opposition failed to win any seats. 

In March 2006, the EU decided to impose travel bans on a number of Belarusian officials, including President Alexander Lukashenko, who is widely known as "the last dictator in Europe". The sanctions have not yet been lifted, but their application has been suspended. 

Such "carrot and stick" tactics are also illustrated by a document released on 21 November 2006, in which EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner outlined trade-offs in respect to visa facilitation, commercial opportunities and economic relations that the Belarus government would gain by improving its record on human rights and democracy. 

Lukashenko paid a visit to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the Pope in April 2009. 

In an exclusive interview for EURACTIV, the leader of the opposition in Belarus Alexander Milinkevich advised the European Union to make a careful use of "carrots" with the authoritarian regime in Belarus in its attempts to boost democracy.

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