PRESSURE IS mounting within the European Union and United States for a political punishment to be imposed on Belarus's President Alexander Lukashenko after a disputed election was followed by a fierce crackdown on the country's opposition movement.
Official results gave Mr Lukashenko almost 80 per cent of votes on a turnout of 90 per cent - figures which the president's critics called absurd and which western monitors said were the outcome of a deeply flawed ballot.
Thousands of people marched in protest through the capital Minsk on the night of the election - a rare public protest against Mr Lukashenko's autocratic 16-year rule - but were set upon by riot police who arrested about 600 individuals, including opposition leaders.
Several of the candidates who ran against Mr Lukashenko have been charged with organising mass unrest and could be jailed for 15 years, amid an intensification of the regime's long-running oppression of opposition parties and critical media outlets.
Mr Lukashenko has also ordered Europe's biggest human rights watchdog, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), to leave his country after it criticised the vote.
The 56-member body - which Ireland will chair next year - monitors many aspects of civil society and democracy and has a high-profile role in assessing elections and media freedom.
In recent years, Russia and other ex-Soviet states have complained that the OSCE is too critical of them and is controlled by the US and EU members.
"We will demand a clear political answer from the European Union to the interference with the election in Minsk . . . An unequivocal answer to the political officials and the president is necessary, saying that the repression of freedom is not acceptable," said German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle.
He called the decision to close the OSCE office "a further setback for the rule of law and human rights in Belarus. With its authoritarian course, the government in Minsk is leading the country further away from European freedom values.
"We'll be talking as soon as possible with our partners about the necessary consequences of the Belarus leadership's policies of self-isolation, and the alarming situation concerning human rights in Belarus," he added.
Along with his counterparts from Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic, Mr Westerwelle wrote in a recent article that "continued positive engagement with Mr Lukashenko at the moment seems to be a waste of time and money".
Senior EU diplomats are expected to discuss Belarus in coming days, and one of them yesterday said "the majority of EU governments back severing relations with Belarus, in other words, reimposing sanctions".
The EU slapped a visa ban on top Belarusian officials in 2006 but suspended it two years later in a bid to encourage democratic reforms and reduce Russian influence over Minsk.
Washington also denounced Mr Lukashenko's treatment of the OSCE, and leading senators have called for a "tougher approach" to Belarus and demanded his crackdown on opponents should carry "a very heavy cost".