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(Brussels) – The European Union should use its upcoming meeting with the Belarusian foreign minister to reinforce tough and principled human rights demands on the government, Human Rights Watch said today.

Foreign Minister Vladimir Makey will meet EU officials in Brussels on July 22, 2013.  This will be the first formal visit of a high-level Belarusian official to the EU headquarters since the crackdown by President Alexander Lukashenko’s government on the political opposition and civil society following presidential elections in December 2010.

“President Lukashenko pretended for two years that relations with the EU didn’t really matter to him, but he has suddenly changed course,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “If Lukashenko really wants better ties, the government should free all political prisoners and stop harassing the political opposition and civic activists. The EU should hold him to any promises he makes.”

Makey is among the 243 Belarusian officials and businesspeople who are on an EU visa ban due to their personal responsibility for serious human rights violations and financial support to the government following the crackdown. The visa ban against Makey was suspended in June to ease diplomatic contacts.

In January 2011 the EU reintroduced a visa ban and other targeted sanctions that had been lifted in 2010. It called on the Belarusian government to release and rehabilitate political prisoners and “stop the harassment of civil society, the political opposition, and independent media.”

Makey’s visit comes amid an apparent thaw in EU-Belarusian relations that started in May. A European Parliament draft report called for the suspension of the visa bans as a gesture in the lead-up to EU’s Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius, Lithuania in November.

The draft report claimed there had been improvements in Belarus and recommended that the EU use the Eastern Partnership summit as a “unique opportunit[y] to improve relations with Belarus,” ultimately to lead to a “resumption of negotiations on a new comprehensive agreement” on a framework for the EU-Belarus relationship.

“If the EU wants to engage with Belarusian officials, it should be about releasing political prisoners and ending the harassment of civil society,” Denber said. “The EU defined benchmarks that the Belarusian government has yet to meet.”

Although the government pardoned and freed the majority of several dozen people sentenced for “rioting” during the 2010 post-election protest, there has been little improvement in the overall human rights situation, Human Rights Watch said. An April 2013 report by the United Nations special rapporteur who monitors the situation in Belarus said that “human rights remain systemically and systematically restricted” in the country. A June UN Human Rights Council resolution called violations in Belarus “structural and endemic.”

All of the freed prisoners had to acknowledge guilt as a condition for their release. At least four other people prosecuted for the December 2010 protests remain in prison, as does one of the country’s leading human rights activists, Ales Bialiatski. Bialiatski is chairman of the Viasna Human Rights Center and vice president of the International Federation for Human Rights. He has been wrongfully imprisoned for two years since his arrest in August 2011, serving a four-and-a-half-year prison term on bogus tax evasion charges.

“The Belarusian government has had every opportunity to free Ales Bialiatski,” Denber said. “If the government wants to show it’s serious about improving its human rights record, it should free him immediately and unconditionally.”

Viasna has estimated that at least seven other people remain in prison on politically motivated charges. Among them is Andrei Haidukou, a political activist who had been involved in silent protests and heads the unregistered Union of Young Intellectuals. Arrested in November 2012, initially on treason charges, Haidukou was sentenced to 18 months in prison in July on vague charges of “attempting to establish cooperation with foreign intelligence services.”

Viasna and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee have reported that his trial was closed and he had only limited access to his lawyer. Although the authorities have threatened Haidukou’s lawyer with criminal charges if he discloses information about the case, it is believed the charges against Haidukou stem from his efforts to seek a grant to support his work from the United States government.

New charges have also been brought against two people previously imprisoned on trumped-up charges related to the December 2010 demonstration, allegedly for violating the terms of their parole.

The government harasses and intimidates human rights defenders, independent media, and defense lawyers throughout the country, Human Rights Watch said. On February 25, Taxation Ministry officials served Aleh Hulak, leader of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, with a warrant to seize the group’s property. This is the latest government effort to abuse tax and administrative regulations to silence the only independent human rights organization with registration status to operate nationally in Belarus, Human Rights Watch said.

Under Belarusian law, anyone who acts on behalf of an unregistered organization could face a two-year prison term. The government has warned activists about this in at least three instances since April. It also filed criminal charges against a devout Catholic, Aliaksei Shchadrou, for opening a shelter in his house for homeless people. The shelter had a prayer room where he prayed with the homeless, which led to the charge that he created an “unregistered religious organization.”

Authorities regularly prohibit peaceful gatherings and use “hooliganism” or similar misdemeanor charges to intimidate activists and prevent them from carrying out their work. In 2013 dozens have been convicted and sentenced, some repeatedly, to short-term detention. Independent journalists on assignment at public assemblies are regularly detained on similar charges.

The authorities opened a campaign against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in 2013 after an LGBT rights group made a second attempt to register with the Justice Ministry. The intelligence services – the KGB – and the police interrogated dozens of activists who were founders of the group.

In mid-January the authorities detained Siarhei Androsenka, chairman of the Gay Belarus Human Rights Project, at the Belarusian border and confiscated his passport on the grounds that it was ostensibly on “the list of falsified passports,” preventing him from traveling abroad. The passport was returned to him only in the beginning of May.

Belarus remains the only country in Europe that uses capital punishment. Since the beginning of 2013 alone it has sentenced three people to death.

The EU had a policy of targeted sanctions in place for Belarus from 2004 to 2010. It lifted the sanctions following the Belarusian government’s decision to allow independent candidates to run for president. The EU sanctions were dropped without evidence of sustainable change, and an even fiercer government crackdown followed, Human Rights Watch said.

Both Foreign Minister Makey’s visit to the EU in Brussels and the November Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius should be used as additional opportunities to reiterate the need for Belarus to meet the EU’s human rights benchmarks, Human Rights Watch said.

“The EU should not be misled by Lukashenko’s promises of democratization,” Denber said. “It should stay firm on the benchmarks for reopening its dialogue with Belarus.”

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