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EU mulls sanctions on Belarus amid accusations of ‘widespread torture’

European Union flags. (Thijs ter Haar/Flickr)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The European Union is poised to ratchet up pressure on Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in response to a brutal crackdown on protests triggered by elections the bloc described as “neither free nor fair.”

Ahead of an EU foreign ministers extraordinary meeting in Brussels on August 14, Belarusian authorities began releasing hundreds of detainees early in the morning.

Many of those released described horrible conditions in detention facilities, beatings, and other mistreatment, while Amnesty International said the accounts suggested “widespread torture.”

At least two protesters have died and some 6,700 people have been detained since nationwide protests erupted on August 9 after an exit poll showed Lukashenka winning a sixth term with about 80 percent of the vote. The claim was rejected by opposition candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was forced to leave for Lithuania.

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EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell, who called for the bloc’s top diplomats to gather, demanded an end to the harsh crackdown and respect for human rights and democracy.

“Over the last months, the Belarusians have clearly shown that they long for democracy and respect for human rights,” Borrell wrote in a blog post on August 13. “A substantial political change is a precondition for further development of the relations between the EU and Belarus.”

In Berlin on August 13, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the EU must “increase pressure on the ruler” in Minsk.

“It is perfectly clear that the brutal crackdown and detention of peaceful demonstrators…will not be tolerated in 21st-century Europe,” said Maas, whose country holds the EU’s rotating presidency.

At the EU level there are “intensive discussions about sanctions,” he said.

Amnesty International said detainees had given “horrifying testimonies” that they received severe beatings and threats of rape.

“Former detainees told us that detention centers have become torture chambers, where protesters are forced to lie in the dirt while police kick and beat them with truncheons,” said Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Meanwhile, the leaders of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland have issued a joint statement offering to act as mediators “for the sake of a peace settlement of the crisis in Belarus.”

The statement called for the creation of a forum that could produce “a national dialogue.”

Tsikhanouskaya, who was registered as a candidate after her vlogger husband, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, was jailed when he tried to register to become a candidate, was closely supported in the election by the campaigns of two other disqualified candidates.

One of them, Valery Tsapkala, a former Belarusian ambassador who fled the country ahead of the election, has called on the EU to recognize Tsikhanouskaya as president.

The EU imposed tough sanctions on Belarus following a harsh crackdown on the opposition in the wake of a rigged 2010 election.

Most restrictions were lifted in 2016 following the release of political prisoners that paved the way for a rapprochement between the EU and Belarus as the Eastern European country gained greater geopolitical importance following Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.