The European Union is ratcheting up pressure on Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in response to a brutal crackdown on protests triggered by elections the bloc described as "neither free nor fair."
EU foreign ministers, following an extraordinary video conference meeting in Brussels on August 14, said the bloc did not accept the results of the election and tasked the European Commission with drawing up sanctions proposals against Belarus.
"The European Union considers the results to have been falsified and therefore does not accept the results of the election as presented by the Belarus Central Election Commission,” the EU’s diplomatic corps, the European External Action Service, said in a statement.
Ahead of the meeting, Belarusian authorities began releasing hundreds of detainees rounded up since protests erupted following the August 9 vote.
Many of those released described horrible conditions in detention facilities, beatings, and other mistreatment, while Amnesty International said the accounts suggested "widespread torture."
At least two protesters have died and some 6,700 people have been detained since nationwide protests erupted after the August 9 vote.
Lukashenka, in power since 1994, was declared the winner of the election with some 80 percent of the vote. Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who drew crowds in the thousands at campaign rallies across the country and has left Belarus for Lithuania since the vote, finished a distant second with just under 10 percent.
EU foreign ministers demanded Belarusian authorities stop "the disproportionate and unacceptable violence against peaceful protesters" and release illegally detained persons.
They said that work would begin immediately to develop a list of sanctions on Belarus targeting those responsible for violence, repression, and the falsification of election results.
A decision on sanctions is expected by the end of the month.
Ahead of the meeting, EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell signaled there would be a momentous change in the EU's relationship with Belarus.
"Over the last months, the Belarusians have clearly shown that they long for democracy and respect for human rights,” Borrell wrote in a blog post on August 13. "A substantial political change is a precondition for further development of the relations between the EU and Belarus."
Meanwhile, the leaders of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland issued a joint statement offering to act as mediators "for the sake of a peace settlement of the crisis in Belarus." The statement called for the creation of a forum that could produce "a national dialogue."
The Council of Europe also urged Minsk not to use violence against protesters or detainees.
"Belarus needs to fully engage with civil society and this needs to start today," council head Marija Pejcinovic Buric said in a statement. She added that the Council of Europe was ready to help Belarus create and implement a reform plan.
Amnesty International said detainees had given "horrifying testimonies" that they received severe beatings and threats of rape.
"Former detainees told us that detention centers have become torture chambers, where protesters are forced to lie in the dirt while police kick and beat them with truncheons," said Marie Struthers, Amnesty International's director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
The EU imposed tough sanctions on Belarus following a harsh crackdown on the opposition in the wake of a rigged 2010 election.
Most restrictions were lifted in 2016 following the release of political prisoners that paved the way for a rapprochement between the EU and Belarus as the Eastern European country gained greater geopolitical importance following Russia's aggression against Ukraine.