Release Belarusian political prisoners or face consequences, says EP chief

After a meeting with Belarusian opposition leaders, president of the European parliament Jerzy Buzek has called again for the release of prisoners arrested after protests following allegedly rigged presidential elections on 19 December.

"Our first priority - the release of all those remaining in prison who were detained on election night," Buzek said after the meeting, Wednesday.

"The heavy charges brought against them must be dropped immediately. Proper medical care must be provided to all those in need. This is a sine qua non condition if Belarus wants to have any relations with the EU," he added.

Following the elections in December, which the Belarusian election commission declared was won by incumbent Alexander Lukashenko by just under 80 percent of the vote, police and militia brutally cracked down on a protest calling into question the results of the poll.

Hundreds of people were arrested, including one presidential candidate who was hospitalized after being beaten.

Arrests continue

Since then, police have continued to arrest journalists and politicians.

On Saturday, journalist Andrzej Poczobut, correspondent for the Gazeta Wyborcza daily, was arrested by secret service (KGB) officials outside his home in Grodno, near the Polish border and a centre for the Union of Poles in Belarus organization.

Poczobut says he was beaten during interrogation. He was also warned in writing that if he ever takes part in a demonstration similar to that on the night of 19 December he would be charged with public order offences carrying a maximum of eight years in prison.

European parliament chief Jerzy Buzek, a former prime minister of Poland, said today that, "Some Member States have had similar experiences as Belarus. In my own country, Solidarnosc was the beginning. It helped to develop civil society. Martial law only postponed the inevitable. I am convinced this will be the case for Belarus as well. I am convinced that the Belarusian people will win out at the end. The hour of freedom and democracy will reign soon.

"We welcome representatives of the democratic opposition and civil society from Belarus. They are the real winners of the last elections. During our meeting we have asked them for their advice on how to best handle the current situation: how the European Union, in practical terms, can and should help to give freedom and democracy a real chance in Belarus," Buzek adds in his statement.

Member states such as the UK are calling for tough sanctions against the Luakshenko regime, while Poland is pursuing a carrot and stick approach - making harsh statements against the regime in Minsk and banning entry into Poland by Belaruasian government officials but at the same time abolishing visa fees for ordinary Belarusians who want to enter Poland.

'Minimum force'

Sergei Martynov, foreign minister of Belarus, said Wednesday morning while on a flying visit to Helsinki that the police were forced to act on the night of 19 December but only used "minimum force" against protestors.

"The police did not use rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannons, or dogs, as has been the case in many European capitals in recent months," Martynov is quoted in the Finnish Helsingin Sanomat daily.

Minister Martynov will be meeting with the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Brussels today for talks which have been criticised as being insensitive by many within the union.

Dutch Christian Democrat MPs say that any such meeting should occur only after sanctions against the Minsk regime have been agreed. (pg)


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