by David Gollust, VOA News
he United States and European Union Tuesday jointly criticized the Belarus government's decision to close the OSCE monitoring mission in Minsk that had called the country's December presidential election badly flawed. The State Department indicated there may be new U.S. action against the Belarus government of President Alexander Lukashenko.
In a joint statement, the United States and European Union have expressed regret over the Minsk government's closure of the OSCE office, and say the December elections and their aftermath represent a "step backwards" for democratic governance in Belarus.
The country's multi-candidate presidential campaign had raised hopes for an easing of conditions in a country often described as Europe's last dictatorship.
But announced results from the December 19th election gave incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko nearly 80 per cent of the vote, spawning election-night protests and a violent crackdown by security forces on demonstrators in Minsk.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitoring mission had called the election seriously flawed and also condemned the violent dispersal of the demonstrators.
Tuesday's statement said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and EU chief diplomat Catherine Ashton regret the action against the OSCE mission, call for the immediate release of all those still detained, and urge the Lukashenko government to fulfill reform commitments to the OSCE.
State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley said the OSCE had been playing an important role in Belarus and that the United States is considering punitive action. "We're very concerned about the fact that, I believe, every single person who ran against President Lukashenko is now in custody. This violates all international norms. So we are very concerned about what is happening in the country, and have a variety of options as we evaluate the implications of this," he said.
The United States has long had a variety of political and economic sanctions in place against the government of Mr. Lukashenko, a former Soviet official who has ruled the country with an authoritarian hand since 1994.
But the measures were eased somewhat in 2008 after the country released the last detainees considered political prisoners.
Spokesman Crowley would not be specific about possible new U.S. sanctions but said a "range" of options are available regarding travel, economic ties and assistance.
News reports from Brussels Tuesday said the European Union may re-impose a travel ban on Mr. Lukashenko and other officials that had been lifted in 2008.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists Monday urged the European Union to condition diplomatic relations with Belarus on the release of recently arrested journalists, and an end to the Minsk government's crackdown on independent media.
The group said two Belarusian journalists have been formally indicted and face long prison terms for fomenting mass disorder, and that others - beaten during the post election crackdown - remain in detention.