US and EU impose fresh sanctions on Belarus
The US has imposed new financial and travel sanctions on Belarus in response to the government’s crackdown after December’s disputed presidential elections, the State Department said on Monday.
The new sanctions, which follow similar moves announced by the European Union, expand the number of Belarus officials covered by travel and financial restrictions and revokes temporary authorisation for business deals with two subsidiaries of Belneftekhim, the country’s largest state-owned petroleum and chemical conglomerate, a State Department statement said.
EU foreign ministers, meeting in Brussels, agreed to ban Aleksandr Lukashenko, the Belarusian president who has been in power since 1994, and about 150 officials from travelling to member states. They also extended a list of people affected by an EU asset freeze, in place since 2006, to include those involved in the December crackdown, an EU diplomat said.
The authoritarian Belarusian government had released some political prisoners, as European Union foreign ministers gathered to discuss the reimposition of sanctions against the regime following flawed presidential elections in December and a crackdown on the opposition.
Vladimir Neklyayev, 64, a poet and a candidate in the elections, had been released from prison at the weekend and was now being held under house arrest, his family said. Mr Neklyayev was attacked and beaten up on the evening of the presidential poll, then bundled from hospital and taken to prison.
In a statement, his wife said that two KGB officers were staying with Mr Neklyayev in his Minsk flat, and that he was not allowed to receive visitors or to take telephone calls.
The regime also released Irina Khalip, the wife of former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov. They had been threatened with losing custody of their 3-year-old son, who was left in the care of his grandmother while his parents were being held in jail.
The Belarusian KGB said that five other activists would also be released.
Mr Lukashenko claims to have won almost 80 per cent of the vote in December’s presidential election, while international monitors said that the election failed to meet international standards.
Hours after the polls closed, thousands of people gathered in central Minsk to protest against the conduct of the elections and to demand Mr Lukashenko’s removal. The demonstration was dispersed by riot police and hundreds of people were arrested, including seven presidential candidates.
Some opposition activists, including Mr Sannikov, are still in prison, and two dozen of the regime’s leading opponents face prison sentences of up to 15 years for taking part in the anti-government protests.
Mr Lukashenko had been promised aid and investment from the EU if he conducted a free and fair election, but on the eve of the vote he turned to Moscow, repairing previously strained ties, ensuring continued supplies of cheaper energy needed to keep Belarus’s inefficient industries afloat.
Jan Cienski in Warsaw and agencies