US Joins Europeans in Sanctioning Belarus over Election Fraud

By David Gollust

The United States said Friday it is joining European Union countries in imposing sanctions against Belarus for apparent fraud in last Sunday's presidential election and an ensuing crackdown on dissidents. The country's president, Alexander Lukashenko, faces travel restrictions.

Acting only hours after security forces in Belarus forcibly evicted election protesters from the central square in Minsk, both the European Union and the United States have moved to sanction Belarusian leaders including President Lukashenko.

The financial penalties and travel restrictions are targeted against Mr. Lukashenko and associates in his government held responsible for what officials here say was fraud in the March 19 election, and human rights abuses, underlined by the arrest of hundreds of protesters early Friday.

Mr. Lukashenko, a former Soviet agriculture official, has run Belarus with an increasingly authoritarian hand since being first elected president in 1994.

Official results from Sunday's voting said he won re-election with 83 per cent of the vote, after a campaign in which election observers say his two rivals were denied access to the state media and their followers harassed.

At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli condemned the early-morning arrests by the Belarusian security services and called on the release, without delay, of persons he said were arrested simply for expressing their political views.

He welcomed the sanctions move by the European Union and called for international solidarity on the Belarus events. "The United States and European Union remain united in our response to the situation in Belarus. We urge all members of the international community to demand that Belarusian authorities respect the rights of their own citizens to express themselves peacefully and to condemn any and all abuses," he said.

Officials here said the spokesman's appeal was aimed in part at Russia, which has taken a more tolerant approach toward the Lukashenko government than others in Europe.

Ereli said every country is obviously free to decide what it wants to do in the face of the events in Minsk but that the United States would like to see the uniform application of universally accepted human rights standards.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which sent some 400 election monitors to the former Soviet Republic, earlier condemned the conduct of the Belarus election, as did NATO.

The European Union's action puts President Lukashenko on the same travel blacklist as Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe and leaders of Burma's military junta.

Though he will now be denied U.S. visas as well, Lukashenko would still be allowed to visit the United Nations under the United States' obligations as the U.N. host country.

Lukashenko made a defiant speech to the U.N. General Assembly last September in which he lamented the demise of the Soviet Union and the rise of what he called a "unipolar world" dominated by the United States.