Belarus throws out EU watchdog after election

Agency condemned government crackdown on opposition demonstrators

MINSK - Belarus has declared that Europe's top rights watchdog could no longer work there, after it criticized the presidential election and condemned a police crackdown on opposition demonstrators.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had described the Dec. 19 vote as "flawed" and accused police of heavy-handed tactics after they beat and arrested protesters and rounded up opposition candidates.

The election handed a fourth term to President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been accused by Western leaders of dictatorial rule and suppressing independent media.

"The Belarussian side has taken the decision not to continue the operations of the OSCE office in Minsk," said foreign ministry spokesman Andrei Savinykh.

"The evaluation of the OSCE's activities in Minsk shows that the OSCE has fulfilled its mandate," he added.

Under Belarussian law, the government can revoke the OSCE's permit or refuse to renew it.

"This will lead to a worsening of relations with the European Union and increase the influence of Russia in Belarus," said Grigory Kostusev, a member of the Belarussian National Front party who stood against Lukashenko.

"The reason (for the decision) is that the OSCE did not recognize the elections. It is a political decision," he told Reuters.

The OSCE could not be immediately reached for comment.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in a statement: "The decision to shut down the OSCE office is a further setback for the rule of law and human rights in Belarus. With its authoritarian course, the government in Minsk is leading the country further away from European freedom values."

He added: "We'll be talking as soon as possible with our partners about the necessary consequences of the Belarus leadership's policies of self-isolation and the alarming situation concerning human rights in Belarus."

On Thursday Belarussian authorities charged 22 opposition activists with organizing mass disorder on the night of the election. Five of them were opposition presidential candidates.

Opposition and international observers said there had been a lack of transparency in vote counting and mistreatment of Lukashenko's opponents.

Nearly 700 protesters and journalists were arrested during a night of demonstrations, dispersed violently by riot police.

While the European Union and the United States have condemned the election process and the arrests, neighboring Russia has supported Lukashenko, and the Russian ambassador said Moscow backed legal action against the demonstrators' leaders.

Russian energy subsidies underpin the Belarussian command economy, but Moscow has been losing patience with its unpredictable ally.

Lukashenko has been flirting with the EU in recent years, and Brussels had dangled the prospect of financial aid if the election demonstrated at least a veneer of democracy.


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