Belarus held a flawed presidential election on December 19, 2010, in which Alexander Lukashenko was re-elected and which subsequently sparked protests that evening in Minsk, the capital. More than 600 people were arrested when the police violently dispersed the antigovernment rally. Seven of the nine opposition candidates who ran against Mr. Lukashenko in elections were arrested, and four of them remain in custody. Five have been formally charged.
Belarusian authorities have continued to suppress the opposition, closing independent media outlets, searching offices and homes, and detaining and questioning members of the opposition, civil society groups and journalists.
The Helsinki Committee, an independent rights group operating in Belarus, reported that police had seized computers at its office and taken its director Oleg Gulak in for questioning. The Committee is being threatened with closure.
According to press reports, it appears that 21 members of the Belarusian opposition remain in a pretrial detention center, with little or, at least in one case, no access to lawyers. They face up to 15 years in jail for their roles in protesting the unfair election. The United States calls for their immediate release, and holds the government of Belarus responsible for the health and well-being of all those detained.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently met with activists concerned about human rights in Belarus – including some who were present at the crackdown in Minsk - to discuss the ongoing events. The Secretary condemned the conduct of Belarus's presidential election and the crackdown on political leaders and activists, civil society representatives and journalists. She stressed her concern for detainees and for their family members, noting the efforts of the U.S. Embassy in Minsk to remain in close contact with them.
The United States and the European Union, or E.U., have imposed travel bans on senior Belarusian officials and financial sanctions. In 2008, the United States suspended some economic sanctions on Belarus because the government had released political prisoners. Both the United States and E.U. have threatened stronger action if imprisoned activists aren't released soon. As Philip Gordon, U.S. Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, said in Budapest on January 13: "In these circumstances, that is to say, their continued detention, we would be obliged to consider them political prisoners".
He added that the U.S. would soon consider tightening sanctions. "We will be obliged to re-impose those sanctions if there is not a change in the coming days," he said.