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Belarus and human rights

In a joint article the Foreign Ministers of Germany, Poland, Sweden and the UK have expressed concern about continuing repression in Belarus. Published in the Independent on December 19, 2011.

One year ago today, Belarus's President, Alexander Lukashenko, broke his promises to his own people and to the international community to work towards a more liberal political environment in Belarus. On the evening of 19 December, we saw riot police brutally beat those who took to the streets to demonstrate peacefully against the rigged re-election of Lukashenko.

Before the election, there had been encouraging signs of a change of heart by Lukashenko in favour of step-by-step moves towards substantive pluralism and reasonable European standards.

The European Union welcomed these signals, offering to open new areas of co-operation with Belarus should those improvements materialise. Instead, we saw hundreds of innocent protesters locked up and scores sentenced to politically motivated prison sentences in flawed trials, among them several Presidential candidates whose only crime was to contest Lukashenko's Presidency.
Not content with oppressing all political dissenters, Lukashenko has now turned his gaze on those who have tried to defend them, jailing the respected human rights defender, Ales Byalyatski, for four and a half years on a trumped-up charge of tax evasion, adding one more political prisoner to the list.

And he has changed the law to further squeeze the almost non-existent space for political expression and civic activism.

Brave individuals are suffering inhumane treatment in prison because they refuse to give in to attempts to make them 'confess' to crimes they have not committed. We are very concerned about their plight, including Andrei Sannikov, Mikalai Statkevich, Zmitser Daskevich and Dzmitry Bandarenka.

Distracted by its campaign to suppress all resistance, the regime took its eye off Belarus's ailing economy and took no steps to plan for economic growth through modernisation. The result is runaway inflation and a severe devaluation of the currency, causing living standards to plummet.
A sensible privatisation policy and encouraging private enterprise would be key to putting the Belarusian economy on a sustainable footing, but Lukashenko refuses to do this. About 70 per cent of Belarusians work for the state and most are subject to renewable one-year contracts. This is a formidable weapon of quasi-totalitarian control.

In the face of Lukashenko's continuing repression against his own people, we have no choice but to argue for a strengthening of EU policy towards Belarus, both in terms of the sanctions regime, and in terms of EU support for Belarusian civil society. We will push for harsher EU sanctions, targeted at those responsible for serious human rights abuses and those who back the regime financially, not ordinary Belarusians.

At the same time, the EU will further increase its support for and dialogue with civil society organisations and the democratic forces in Belarus, helping them to overcome the obstacles put in their way by the regime and to voice their concerns.

The EU is not seeking to replace Belarus's regional relations, but to widen and complement them. We need to enhance the package of EU measures and assistance to help Belarus, once it has chosen the path of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law.

In the meantime, we will work to overcome the regime's resistance to the full amnesty and rehabilitation of all political prisoners and the attempts to increasingly isolate Belarus from its European neighbours.

There can be no bright future for Belarus as long as the leadership drags the country down. It should be up to the people of Belarus to decide what future they want. We will continue to push for the conditions in which they can be allowed to make that choice freely.

Guido Westerwelle, Carl Bildt, Radoslaw Sikorski and William Hague - Foreign Secretaries of Germany, Sweden, Poland and Britain

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