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Senator calls for strong U.S.-European response to Minsk’s brutal election crackdown

(Washington, D.C.) - U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on European Affairs, today called on the United States and its European partners to work together at pressuring Belarus on adherence to basic standards of democracy and human rights.  At a hearing she convened, Shaheen pressed for sanctions against the Belarusian regime for the human rights violations committed against opposition candidates and protesters in the wake of the recent presidential election.  Shaheen demanded the immediate release of political prisoners.

"America's responsibility in Belarus is clear," said Shaheen.  "When a government arrests its political opponents, silences its independent media, and uses violence to stifle the voices of its citizens, we must respond.  The people of Belarus deserve no less."

"While the current crackdown may be notable in scale and scope, it fits within a clearly demonstrated pattern of behavior by the Belarusian government stretching back to the mid-1990s," said Thomas O. Melia, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in his prepared testimony.  "In light of these recent events, we must continue to speak out against the detentions, raids, and other human rights abuses, while at the same time continuing to demonstrate our unwavering support for the democratic aspirations of the Belarusian people."

"Throughout the night more than 600 people were arrested, including six presidential candidates," said Belarusian human rights activist Natalia Koliada, who was in Minsk the night of the election, in her testimony.  "At the detention center they did not even take us to the cells. We were left standing in the hallways waiting for trials that were due to start in the morning. The guards continued psychological pressure, periodically giving the command: ‘Form up a file,' ‘Face the wall,' ‘Place your feet shoulder-width apart.' It was senseless torture of people throughout the entire night."

In the wake of President Alexander Lukashenko's December 19 reelection, Belarus' officials reacted with violence toward a peaceful rally of thousands of Belarusians and imprisoned several opposition presidential candidates.  The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), an intergovernmental organization that had been monitoring the election and discovered instances of fraud surrounding it, was forced to shutter its office in Minsk.

As part of a joint U.S.-European effort to compel the Belarusian regime to treat its people fairly, Shaheen advocated for the pursuit of sanctions, asset freezes, and a travel ban on the country's authorities.  On January 20, Shaheen joined several senators in a bipartisan letter to European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton urging a firm U.S.-E.U. response to the crackdown.