This month marks the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the brutal crackdown by the Belarus government on civil society, political opposition and independent media. On December 19th, 2010, 30,000 demonstrators filled Independence Square in central Minsk to protest the fraudulent reelection of President Aleksander Lukashenka. Government forces arrested some 700 and beat thousands of others.
Over the past twelve months, the Belarusian authorities have imprisoned peaceful demonstrators, suppressed non-violent protests, and worked to silence independent voices. There have also been credible reports of degrading and inhuman treatment of prisoners. A number of them have been set free. But the United States and the European Union reiterated their call for all political prisoners to be immediately released and allowed to return to full participation in public life, including presidential candidates Andrey Sannikau and Mikalay Statkevich who were jailed for five and six years respectively. Andrey Sannikau suffers complete isolation in prison – he has no access to lawyers and is banned from corresponding with his family. He is constantly being transferred from prison to prison facing torture and ill-treatment. The United States also calls for the immediate unconditional release of human rights defender Ales Byalyatski. He was jailed for four and a half years for so-called tax evasion in November.
The United States and European Union are also very concerned over new laws that will further restrict citizens' fundamental freedoms of assembly, association, and expression that target civil society. In the summer, President Lukashenka outlawed any public gathering of three or more people. In response the European Council has frozen assets and banned 210 officials and politicians from entering the EU.
In the meantime, Belarus's population of 10 million is suffering ever greater economic hardship under the failed policies of the Lukashenka regime. Salaries imploded when the state devalued the currency to less than half its original worth. As a result, economists expect the annual inflation rate to hit 120 percent.
Improvement in relations with the United States and the European Union are conditional on progress by the government of Belarus to fulfill its human rights commitments and respect the rule of law and democratic principles. The U.S. and the European Union remain willing to assist Belarus if it will work to meet these obligations.