The European Union and United States have slammed the Belarusian authorities for the crackdown on peaceful anti-government protesters in Minsk on March 25, during which more than 700 participants have been detained.
"Both in the run-up to and during today's Freedom Day [on March 25] events and despite international community calls for restraint, the response by the security services was indiscriminate and inappropriate," the EU's External Service said in a statement. "Ordinary citizens were apprehended in great number for no apparent reason ... We recall that the use of force against peaceful protesters cannot be justified under any circumstances."
Demonstrators tried to march down a main avenue in Minsk, but were blocked by riot police equipped with water cannons and armoured vehicles, who started to detain them along with journalists covering the protest. Dozens more protesters were detained the same day in other Belarusian cities. The next day, March 26, the riot police prevented protesters from gathering in central Minsk, detaining up to 40 more people.
Such repression of freedom of expression and assembly is in contradiction with Belarus' stated policy of democratisation and its international commitments, the EU said.
"Respect for the fundamental rights and freedoms, including of expression, association and assembly, needs to be upheld. All recently detained peaceful citizens must be immediately released," the EU External Service added. "Steps taken by Belarus to respect universal fundamental freedoms, rule of law and human rights will remain key for the shaping of the EU's relationship with the country."
In February 2016, the EU lifted most of its sanctions against Belarusian authorities following a peaceful presidential election in October 2015. At the same time, the US last June prolonged by one year its sanction regime against officials deemed to undermine the country's democratic processes, including the republic's authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.
However, in late February, the Council of the EU extended for one year a limited set of remaining sanctions against Belarus, which include an arms embargo and an asset freeze and a travel ban against four former law-enforcement officials.
Meanwhile, the US Embassy in Belarus noted in a separate statement "with deep concern" that authorities in Belarus failed to allow peaceful demonstrations in Minsk, while the large-scale detention of peaceful protesters, human rights observers and journalists "infringes upon basic democratic values".
The US urged Minsk to immediately release all imprisoned peaceful protesters, human rights advocates, and journalists, to guarantee the rights of citizens to peaceful assembly and free speech, and to uphold its international commitments.
In a separate statement published on March 26, Michael Georg Link, director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), condemned the repressions in Belarus.
"The authorities have a duty to uphold the commitments Belarus has made as an OSCE participating state to respect the right to freedom of peaceful assembly," Link said. "Following yesterday's [March 25] events and those in recent days, I again call on the Belarusian authorities to abstain from using any form of sanction or unnecessary force to stifle legitimate dissent and the right to freedom of expression."
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