US urges Belarus to release political detainees

WASHINGTON: The United States Saturday urged Belarus to release its political detainees including the parents of a three-year-old boy who had been threatened with the loss of custody.

In a Twitter message, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said that the Belarus government "backed off its threat to orphan a three-year-old boy. Now release his parents and other political detainees."

The reference is to Danil, the child of Andrei Sannikov - one of the country's most prominent opposition figures - and his journalist wife Irina Khalip.

Sannikov and Khalip are both in prison, and child protection authorities had threatened to take Danil into custody.

Belarussian child protection services had already attempted to collect their son Danil from kindergarten. Khalip's mother Lucina said this week however she had been allowed to become the boy's formal guardian.

Lucina Khalip said authorities had offered her daughter to write a "repentance letter" but she refused.

Sannikov was one of the top opposition candidates in the disputed December 19 election.

President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet state for 16 years, was sworn in for a fourth term on Friday in a lavish ceremony boycotted by western nations.

Also on Friday, the official newspaper Sovyetskaya Belorussia published a report accusing Sannikov and Khalip of accepting 20 million dollars from "foreign donors" in an attempt to topple Lukashenko in election protests.

The United States and the European Union have been weighing tougher sanctions against Lukashenko over the crackdown following his controversial reelection.

"The campaign of repression in Minsk must be reversed, beginning with the immediate and unconditional release of imprisoned journalists and opposition activists," Democratic US Senator Ben Cardin said in statement on Thursday.

"The rapidly deteriorating situation in Belarus warrants a firm response from the United States, the European Union and others," added Cardin, who co-chairs the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the US Helsinki Commission.

The European Union plans to reinstate a travel ban against Lukashenko after 600 people were rounded up on December 19 following election protests, EU sources said.

Belarussian authorities released hundreds of people but are still holding some of the country's most prominent opposition activists, journalists as well as four candidates.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on January 6 condemned Belarus for the flawed election and the crackdown on activists.


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