By JOHN W. MILLER in Brussels and RICHARD BOUDREAUX in Moscow
The European Union and U.S. Monday banned travel and froze assets for Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and 155 of his associates, in response to human-rights abuses following December's election.
After he was re-elected on Dec. 19 with nearly 80% of the vote, Mr. Lukashenko's government charged 37 opposition figures with organizing mass disturbances. Twenty-six are still in jail, including three of nine presidential candidates who opposed him. Opposition leaders face sentences of up to 15 years in prison if convicted.
EU foreign ministers called for "immediate release of those detained on political grounds" before sanctions could be lifted. The U.S. also banned American companies from dealing with Lakokraska OAO and Polotsk Steklovolokno OAO, subsidiaries of Belneftekhim, Belarus's state-owned oil company. Washington also said it was "working to impose financial sanctions against additional Belorussian individuals" who had committed human-rights abuses.
"We've seen no change on the ground," said EU foreign minister Catherine Ashton, who chaired the meeting.
That, she said, left the EU with no choice but to impose sanctions against, as the ministers' statement put it, "persons responsible for the fraudulent presidential elections of 19 December 2010 and the subsequent violent crackdown on democratic opposition, civil society and representatives of independent mass media."
On Saturday, Belarus announced the release from prison of Vladimir Neklayeyev, a presidential candidate, but placed him under house arrest.
Perched inside the edge of Eastern Europe with a population of just under 10 million, Belarus remains the Continent's only remaining hard-line dictatorship. The EU has punished the regime at times and coddled it at others in an effort to force democratic reforms.
After a crackdown by Mr. Lukashenko in 2006, the EU instituted similar measures against several dozen Belorussians. Those sanctions were eased after prisoners were released.
Belarus's government Monday voiced "deep regret" over the sanctions decision, saying the EU ministers ignored "lawlessness and extremism" by election-night protesters in Minsk, the capital.
Belorussian authorities have called that Dec. 19 demonstration, in which some protesters tried to break into government headquarters, as an attempt backed by Poland and Germany to overthrow the regime.
"Implicit in the conclusions of the European Union is the logic of direct interference in the affairs of a sovereign state," the Foreign Ministry said. "It undermines trust and inevitably leads to actions that destroy the prospects for a goal common to East and West, the formation of a Europe without dividing lines."
"Tensions with the European Union are not our choice," the ministry said, adding, without elaborating, that the sanctions would force Belarus to take measures to protect its sovereignty.
The EU stopped short of imposing full economic sanctions on Belarus. "We wanted to punish the leaders of Belarus, not its people," said French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie. Olga Abramova, a political scientist and former member of the Belarus parliament, said Belorussian officials were relieved that the EU didn't take stronger measures.
Write to John W. Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org and Richard Boudreaux at email@example.com