Commission voices ‘distaste’ at Belarus jailings

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The European Commission today (13 May) condemned the sentencing in Belarus of politicians and activists for participating in antigovernment protests late last year.

Meanwhile, Belarusian prosecutors today demanded a seven-year jail term for opposition leader Andrei Sannikov on charges of organising mass protests after disputed presidential elections, AFP reported.

Sannikov, a former diplomat, came in second to Lukashenko in the 19 December polls with 2.43% of votes, which the opposition has decried as severely skewed.

In addition, a Minsk city court found six men guilty of participating in an illegal gathering and in public disturbances during mass demonstrations against the re-election to office of the country's president, Alexander Lukashenko (see 'Background'), RFE/RL reported.

The longest sentence handed down to the activists was three-and-a-half years in jail.

Meanwhile, more than 20 opposition activists are also on trial for their part in the protests, and opposition leaders have been accused of inciting riots and calling for the overthrow of the government.

Michael Mann, spokesperson for EU foreign policy chief Catherina Ashton, condemned the sentencing to prison of the protesters and the fact that people were put in prison without any reason.

"The president [Lukashenko] had the chance in December to have a proper free election, allowing proper freedom of speech and allowing proper democratic processes to go ahead," Mann told EURACTIV.

"We have repeatedly expressed our distaste and our condemnation of what is happening in Belarus," he said.

Jerzy Buzek, president of the European Parliament, along with other leading MEPs, has sent a letter to the president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, urging him to suspend the 2014 World Ice Hockey Championships in Minsk until all political prisoners have been released.

Lukashenko's regime, Buzek said, had "arrested hundreds of peaceful demonstrators including presidential candidates, opposition leaders, journalists, civil society representatives as well as ordinary Belarusians […] The 2014 Ice Hockey Championships cannot be held in Belarus under these appalling conditions," Buzek wrote.

MEPs believe any suspension would be a massive blow to ice hockey-mad Lukashenko, who frequently appears on the rink in full protective gear, according to RFE/RL.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and her US counterpart Hillary Clinton strongly condemned violent repression by the Belarusian authorities of protests following presidential elections held on 19 December, which observers say were rigged.

Many were beaten and more than 600 activists, journalists and ordinary Belarusians were arrested. Five former presidential candidates and 14 other opposition activists were detained.

On 3 January, Belarus freed one of five opposition presidential candidates it has held since the election. But Minsk also decided to shut down the mission of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in the city.

On 31 January, the European Union imposed sanctions on Belarus, in the form of travel restrictions and an asset freeze against persons responsible for the fraudulent presidential elections and the subsequent violent crackdown on democratic opposition.

The EU's commitment to remain engaged with the Belarusian people and civil society was confirmed by Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy Commissioner Štefan Füle in a recent interview.

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