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US mulling sanctions against human rights abusers in Belarus, Pompeo says

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers remarks to the media in the press briefing room at the State Department of State April 22, 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Michael Gross/Zuma Press/TNS)
September 09, 2020

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

The United States is considering “targeted sanctions” on people involved in human rights abuses and repression in Belarus, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement on September 8 that also expressed deep concern over the reported abduction of Belarusian Coordination Council member Maryya Kalesnikava.

Pompeo commended the courage of Kalesnikava and two other Coordination Council members who were allegedly abducted and forcibly deported to Ukraine and of the Belarusian people in asserting their right to hold free and fair elections “in the face of unjustified violence and repression by the Belarusian authorities.”

The statement specifically cited “brazen beatings of peaceful marchers in broad daylight and hundreds of detentions” on September 6.

Pompeo said the United States is considering the sanctions in coordination with its partners and called on Belarusian authorities to end the violence against their own people, release all those unjustly detained, including U.S. citizen Vitali Shkliarov, and “engage in meaningful dialogue with genuine representatives of Belarusian society.” Shkliarov is a political consultant who was detained in July.

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Germany, which currently holds the rotating EU Presidency, earlier on September 8 demanded information on those who went missing and the release of political prisoners, and the French Foreign Ministry issued a statement strongly condemning the arrests and forced exile of members of the Coordination Council and the detention of numerous demonstrators in recent days.

Belarusian border officials said they detained Kalesnikava at the border with Ukraine. The deputy interior minister of Ukraine called the circumstances of Kalesnikava’s detention an attempt at a “forcible expulsion” with the aim of “compromising the Belarusian opposition” after weeks of massive anti-government demonstrations.

Kalesnikava reportedly arrived at the Alyaksandrauka border checkpoint at around 5 a.m. on September 8 in a car with two other opposition organizers who went missing the previous day, council press secretary Anton Randyonkau and executive secretary Ivan Krautsou.

Speaking to journalists in Kyiv, Randyonkau said Kalesnikava tore up her passport, escaped from the car, and returned to the Belarusian side of the border, where she was taken into custody.

All three are members of the Coordination Council that has pressed for a peaceful transition of power since President Alyaksandr Lukashenka was declared the runaway winner of the August 9 election, which the opposition says was fraudulent.

Belarusian State Border Committee representative Anton Bychkouski initially said that Kalesnikava, Randyonkau, and Krautsou had all left the country early on September 8.

But Belarusian state television later quoted Bychkouski saying that Kalesnikava, a Coordination Council presidium member, was detained trying to cross the border while the other two had entered Ukraine.

Ukraine’s State Border Service later confirmed that Kalesnikava did not enter the country but that Randyonkau and Krautsou had arrived and were being processed.

Ukrainian Deputy Interior Minister Anton Herashchenko appeared to confirm that version of events in a Facebook post describing the Belarusians’ arrival at the checkpoint as “a forcible expulsion from a native country with the aim of compromising the Belarusian opposition.”

Herashchenko said Kalesnikava “was unable to be removed from Belarus because this brave woman took action to prevent her movement across the border.”

Lukashenka’s exiled opposition challenger, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, issued a Wcall for Kalesnikava’s immediate release.

“Maryya Kalesnikava must be released immediately, as well as all previously apprehended members of the Coordination Council and political prisoners. The Coordination Council’s goal is to be a negotiating platform,” Tsikhanouskaya said, according to her press service.

Several hundred people gathered in Minsk in the evening on September 8 for a “march to support the repressed.” Marchers carried banners supporting Kalesnikava, calling her “our hero.”

RFE/RL’s Belarus Service reported that more than 50 people were detained.

Meanwhile Lukashenka, who has led the country for 26 years, was quoted by Russian media as vowing once again that he won’t step down but he appeared to acknowledge that he might have been in power too long.

“Yes, maybe I overstayed a bit,” Lukashenka said.

He reportedly repeated his suggestion that a new election might be held after constitutional reforms are effected — an offer that opposition leaders suggest is a delaying tactic to quell the mass demonstrations.