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Belarus Must Free Kazulin

Nearly two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, Belarus remains a repressive and autocratic state with a government that denies the democratic and human rights of its citizens. Elections are not free, there is no independent parliament or media, and the people of Belarus do not enjoy the full freedoms of free speech or assembly.

The United States and the European Union have stood united in our support of the democratic aspirations of the Belarus people. Through dialogue -- and when that didn't work -- a mix of economic sanctions and travel restrictions against the Belarusian leadership, the U.S. and EU have worked to impress upon the Belarus authorities on the need for change.

The United States would like nothing more than to have a serious dialogue with Belarus. We stand ready to talk about trade, increased people-to people-contacts, and cooperation to combat terrorism and trafficking in persons, to name just a few. The Belarus authorities know this.

The United States welcomed the release of five political prisoners in early February. But all the prisoners are not free. Alyaksandr Kazulin for instance, is serving an unjust five year prison term for leading a peaceful protest against the fraudulent 2006 elections.

Our relationship with Belarus cannot move forward until all of the prisoners are free and Belarus is ready to discuss how it will restore to its people the right to exercise fundamental freedoms.

Now the Belarus authorities have asked the United States to withdraw their Ambassador and reduce the numbers of diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Minsk. We regret that Belarus has chosen this path of confrontation over one of reform and freedom. Until all political prisoners are unconditionally released and Belarus embarks on a more open and democratic society -- it will continue to be isolated, a pariah nation at the outskirts of Europe.

As recently noted in the international press, Belarus has been preserved as "a museum-quality relic of the Soviet Union." But, the people of Belarus deserve more. The United States calls on President Alexander Lukashenko to take the first step by releasing all political prisoners and embarking on a path to meaningful dialogue with the West and a more democratic nation.