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Freedom House calls for transatlantic solidarity to press for concrete action in wake of post-election crackdown

(Freedom House/IFEX) - Washington - December 23, 2010 - Freedom House commends U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton for their joint statement today, calling on Belarusian authorities to release imprisoned presidential candidates and protesters, and urges the trans-Atlantic partners to jointly do more to press for concrete action in the wake of this week's post-electoral crackdown in Europe's last dictatorship.

On December 17, authorities in Belarus conducted a presidential election that, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), did not meet international standards for being free and fair. Prior to the election, senior officials in E.U. member states made substantial offers of assistance to Belarus if the government ensured higher democratic standards than in past polls. Despite indications that Belarus was making marginal movements towards liberalization - and allowing greater freedom of action for candidates opposing strongman president Aleksandr Lukashenka - state actions on Sunday showed clearly that the old patterns of repression remain intact. Seven presidential candidates and 600 protesters were arrested while demonstrating against what was alleged to have been a massively rigged electoral farce.

"While today's strong statement from foreign policy leaders in the United States and Europe is encouraging, both should be prepared to take further concrete action should conditions in Minsk not change dramatically and immediately," said Freedom House Executive Director David J. Kramer. "If the government of Belarus fails to take fully restorative action in the next two weeks, the European Union should renew full sanctions against the Lukashenka regime, which had been suspended in 2008. The current situation is much worse than that in 2006, when the E.U. and U.S. together imposed sanctions against the regime."

U.S. sanctions on Belarus have largely remained in place; in October 2008, the EU suspended its visa ban on Belarusian officials, a suspension it has renewed several times since. Recent efforts by both the E.U. and U.S. to engage the Lukashenka government and to encourage more democratic behavior have failed, however, as starkly demonstrated by the events of this week.

"It's tough to maintain illusions about the true character of President Lukashenka," Freedom House Senior Program Manager for Eurasia Sam Patten said. "But if his coercive 'victory' last Sunday indeed restored his flagging sense that he enjoys support by his own citizens, then perhaps he could show a little Christmas spirit (the Orthodox Christmas falls on January 7th) and return those whom he has incarcerated to their families without further delay."

Belarus is ranked Not Free in Freedom in the World 2010, Freedom House's survey of political rights and civil liberties, and Not Free in Freedom of the Press 2010.

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