28th Jul 2017

EU calls for release of Belarus prisoners

  • Many October Square protestors have been beaten and are currently in jail (Photo: Andrew Rettman)

(Updated 14:24 CET) EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS – The EU has "condemned" the Friday morning arrests of 150-300 Belarusian protestors, according to the final conclusions of a two-day summit in Brussels (24 March).

It also "decided to take restrictive measures against those responsible for the violations of international electoral standards, including president Lukashenko," the final statement says.

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"We will continue to act in close coordination with our international partners," the text goes on.

A specific mention of the US as an international partner was taken out however, after some member states expressed concern it would add weight to the idea – often peddled in Belarusian state media – that the EU and US are partners in a western conspiracy to topple the regime.

The Friday morning arrests and beatings put an end to a five day protest against OSCE-deemed fake elections on Sunday, with over 400 other opposition campaigners already in jail.

The EU statement calls for the "immediate release" of all prisoners, "deplores" the Belarusian regime’s actions and calls on Minsk to "refrain" from further repressions with a view to planned protests on Saturday.

"On a continent of open and democratic societies, Belarus is a sad exception," it adds, echoing the words of US foreign affairs chief Condoleezza Rice last year that Belarus is "the last dictatorship in Europe."

Czech project with Polish backing

Sparked by the biggest protests in Belarus for ten years, the statement was a Czech-led initiative with Czech diplomats pushing to keep the strong wording in the drafting process.

The Czech delegation came to the Brussels summit with a letter from Belarus opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich and "spread it around" diplomats said.

The letter described beatings, arrests, seizures of campaign literature and a climate of "fear" surrounding the Sunday poll.

Poland strongly endorsed the Czech initiative with the Baltic states, Sweden and Denmark also in the core group pressing for a strong reaction.

President Lukashenko's name appearing in the text is "punishment for [his] sins, the battle of good versus evil" Polish foreign minister Stefan Meller said.

Sanction details later

Details of sanctions will "have to be worked out in the next few days" EU diplomats explained, but the number of Belarusian officials' names on the current EU visa ban list could jump from seven to over 20 and might include family members.

Reports by NGO Charter97 indicated that EU officials have been calling Mr Milinkevich’s team in Minsk in the past few days to gather up the new names.

Foreign ministers will also look into sanctions against firms, such as Belarusian arms exporters, that directly benefit the Lukashenko clan.

But a major trade ban is off the agenda, despite some NGO calls for the EU to force an economic crisis in Belarus to bring more people out on the streets.

The final statement also promises to boost support for civil society and independent media in the country.

Journalists on trial highlight Turkey crackdown

The trial, which opened Monday, of 17 journalists and administrative employees of the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet is considered one of the most important episodes in a systematic campaign to silence dissent.

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