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Europe

Calls for More Concrete EU Action on Belarus Gather Pace

Former and current eastern European liberal leaders called on the EU Friday to support the liberal opposition candidates challenging Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in a vote they said was certain to be fixed.

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Liberal leaders are urging the EU to back the opposition in the Belarussian elections

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, brought to power by mass protests in 2003, wrote in the International Herald Tribune that new sanctions were needed to put teeth into allegations that Lukashenko crushed human rights and urged the West to take note of upheavals against electoral fraud that helped unseat governments in Georgia and Ukraine.

The EU "will need to show leadership by publicly denouncing and not recognising the election and facilitating an EU-led negotiating forum for the two Belarusian sides," he wrote. "The EU also needs to stand with the Belarusian pro-democracy activists through such acts as imposing strict economic and political sanctions on the Belarusian government."

Former president of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa, the former Polish president -- both veterans of the fight to overturn communist rule in the 1980s -- said in a joint letter that backing Belarusian liberals could hasten the end of Lukashenko's administration.

"Just like in our countries in those times, the reality in Belarus might seem unchangeable and chances for a political transformation slim," they wrote in a letter published in Polish and Czech dailies. "If the EU is able to truly support civic society, the last undemocratic regime at its borders will collapse. This may happen as quickly as communist regimes once collapsed. The stronger the opposition is, the less painful the transition to democracy and social transformation will be."

A wave of arrests generates concern

The pleas followed concern from the international community on Thursday following a wave of arrests of opposition candidates in Belarus ahead of this weekend's presidential election, with the European Union brandishing sanctions as Minsk authorities warned tougher measures could come.

Alexander Lukaschenko

Alexander Lukashenko -- Europe's last dictator

In Brussels the EU's executive commission and heads of the European Parliament's political groups called on authorities in the ex-Soviet republic, led since 1994 by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, to immediately release those detained in the run-up to Sunday's polls.

"The new wave of arrests of opposition leaders in Belarus over the last two days is completely unacceptable," said EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

Belarus "should recall that the EU has made clear it stands ready to take further appropriate restrictive measures against the responsible individuals, if the elections are not conducted in a democratic manner," she said.

Terry Davis, Secretary General of the Council of Europe, a Europe-wide human rights watchdog, said: "The Belarus presidential elections will take place in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation."

"There is no genuine freedom of expression and no freedom of association," he said in a statement. "Political opponents of the president have been repeatedly and violently harassed. Whatever the outcome, these elections cannot be qualified as democratic in any meaning of the word."

Council of Europe chief says there is much concern

Terry Davis, neuer Generalsekretär des Europarates

Terry Davis: "Little suspense, much concern"

Referring to Sunday's vote and expectations that Lukashenko will be declared the winner, Davis said: "There seems to be little suspense, but there is much concern."

"Belarus is the only European country which is not a member of the Council of Europe, and I can only hope that whoever wins the election will use the mandate to bring Belarus closer to the European family of free and democratic nations. This is perhaps excessively optimistic, but optimism -- just as people’s aspiration to freedom -- is far too resilient to be lastingly suppressed."

The concerns came after Scandinavian activists were expelled from the country and top opposition politician Anatoly Lebedko, a key aide to main opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich, was arrested on Wednesday, the latest among dozens of campaigners and journalists to be held in recent days.

The arrests appear aimed at stifling an opposition that has gained confidence since uprisings in other ex-Soviet nations, notably the so-called "Orange Revolution" in Belarus' southern neighbor Ukraine, in 2004.

UN human rights official adds weight to calls for action

Vereinte Nationen Logo UN UNO

The UN has grave concerns about Belarus

The United Nations' special rapporteur for human rights in Belarus, Adrian Severin, added his organization's voice to the condemnation.

He called "on the government of Belarus to immediately cease all actions aimed at intimidating opponents, journalists and human rights defenders and jeopardizing the free and fair running of the electoral campaign.

"The special rapporteur urges the government of Belarus to release immediately and unconditionally all political opponents, to bring all violations of freedom of expression and of the right of peaceful assembly to an immediate end and to ensure that the elections are held in full compliance with international standards," the statement said.

Protestors face anti-terror measures if they protest

Wenn das so einfach wäre

The KGB will enforce order with a heavy hand this weekend

Also Thursday, the head of the Belarusian state security, the KGB, warned that opposition supporters planning to take to the streets during the election to protest against Lukashenko could face the death sentence.

Demonstrators who "try to destabilize the situation will be charged with terrorism" and face "sentences of up to 25 years, or life in prison, or capital punishment", Stepan Sukhorenko told a news conference in Minsk.

Milinkevich ridiculed claims by Sukhorenko that the opposition planned to stage a violent coup under cover of the elections, and charged that "the state is planning total falsification" of the vote.

In office since 1994, Lukashenko has vowed defiance in the face of Western pressure to reform his Soviet-style rule -- pressure that has increased with the enlargement of the European Union and NATO to the borders of Belarus.

US President George W. Bush has called Belarus the "last remaining dictatorship in Europe" and Washington and Brussels have openly backed the opposition in the election, for which advance voting began on Tuesday.

Lithuanian lawmakers said Thursday six of their delegation have been refused visas to enter Belarus to observe the election.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier appealed Thursday to the Belarus government to respect the rights of the opposition, saying this was "one of the elementary conditions for free and fair elections."

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