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Belarusian Human Rights Activist Wants Tougher EU Sanctions

Belarusian human rights activist Ales Byalyatski is being held on tax evasion charges.
Belarusian human rights activist Ales Byalyatski is being held on tax evasion charges.
BRUSSELS, September 13, 2011 (RFE/RL) -- The colleague of a prominent Belarusian rights defender whose arrest drew international condemnation has called on the European Union to tighten sanctions against Minsk.

The call was made at a press conference in Brussels on September 13 by Valyantsin Stefanovich, deputy chairman of the rights group Vyasna (Spring).

Vyasna head Ales Byalyatski was arrested last month and later charged with tax evasion in a case his supporters say is politically motivated. Byalyatski had been circulating reports on the Belarusian authorities' crackdown on peaceful protests.

The EU has blacklisted 192 people, including President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who are under a travel ban and have had their assets frozen following the violent crackdown on the protests that followed Lukashenka's disputed reelection in December 2010.

But Stefanovich maintained that proper economic sanctions against the regime were needed, claiming that "the only language Lukashenka understands is money and economic sanctions."

"I don't think that [the blacklist] really threatens the regime in an important way," he said. "It has a symbolic and moral force in that those who commit human rights violations should be accountable and responsible for them. But the fact that some people cannot go on vacation to the European Union doesn't hinder the regime in itself."

The Belarusian authorities arrested Byalyatski -- who faces up to seven years in jail -- on the basis of information about his bank accounts in Poland and Lithuania, which was given to Minsk by the authorities in those countries.

Stefanovich said those accounts existed as the only means to transfer the foreign funding crucial to the human rights activities of Vyasna in Belarus, and that both Poland and Lithuania should set up "a mechanism to send money to civil organizations in a safe way and in a climate of trust."

He also added that those two countries, both of them EU members, are now in a special position "to raise their voice and urge the release of Ales Byalyatski and other political prisoners."

Speaking about Byalyatski's current situation in prison, Stefanovich said his colleague hasn't yet spoken to his family, but that he seems morally strong and has taken up writing prose again, an activity he has not had time for in the last 15 years.