EU threatens new Belarus sanctions after opposition activist death

Belarusians form a solidarity chain (or memory chain) with black ribbons and a flag to commemorate Roman Bondarenko in Minsk, Belarus, 13 November 2020. [EPA-EFE/STR]

The EU warned Friday (13 November) it could impose further sanctions on targets in Belarus and condemned the death in police custody of an opposition activist.

31-year-old Raman Bandarenko, an artist and former soldier, was arrested on Wednesday following a dispute in a Minsk square that has become a regular meeting place for the opposition.

Witnesses said unrest erupted between protesters hanging red-and-white ribbons – colors representing the opposition protest movement against strongman Aleksander Lukashenko – and plainclothes police who were removing them.

He was pronounced dead on Thursday from severe head trauma, triggering a wave of outrage among the Belarusian opposition, who believe Lukashenko’s security forces are ultimately responsible.

The interior ministry denied responsibility for Bondarenko’s death, saying he was killed due to a scuffle with civilians.

“This is an outrageous and shameful result of the actions by the Belarusian authorities,” European Commission spokesman Peter Stano commented on Bondarenko’s death.

Stano confirmed information that Bondarenko “died after several hours of surgery in a hospital in Minsk due to serious injuries caused, according to reports, by the brutality of plain-clothed policemen.”

The EU statement noted that Belarus authorities are guilty of direct violence against the population and of creating an environment in which such “lawless, violent acts can take place.”

“We expect the authorities to end the violence and persecution, to release immediately and unconditionally all arbitrarily detained persons, including political prisoners, and to investigate fully and transparently all human rights violations and abuses, and hold those responsible to account,” Stano said.

“The European Union has already imposed sanctions on 55 individuals responsible for violent repression and intimidation, and stands ready to impose additional sanctions,” the statement added.

The EU sanctions list already includes Lukashenko and several senior officials and state bodies Brussels says are involved in a post-election crackdown.

Although the statement referred to additional sanctions, Nabila Massrali, spokesperson for EU’s chief diplomat Joseph Borrell said “there is nothing to add for now, on which type of sanctions may be taken in the future”.

Huge crowds gathered on Thursday to pay tribute to the artist in what the opposition has been dubbed the “Square of Change” after residents resisted attempts by security forces to paint over anti-government murals.

The death is the latest flashpoint in months of mass protests against Lukashenko following a disputed presidential election in August. The opposition says Lukashenko rigged the vote to secure a sixth successive term.

Exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya called for a minute’s silence to take place at noon on Friday “in every neighborhood of every city”.

“Let’s do it for the sake of a man who was killed because he wanted to live in a free country,” she said.

In the past few months, police detained thousands of demonstrators who have reported torture and abuse in custody, with several deaths, prompting international condemnation and Western sanctions.

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