Belarusian officials on Saturday released seven people, including one presidential candidate, who were taken in to custody [JURIST report] last month following protests surrounding the country's presidential election [press release, in Russian]. The release comes amid speculation that the European Union (EU) [official website] will reimpose a visa ban [RFE report] on Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko [BBC profile, JURIST news archive] and other government officials in response to their actions following the elections. The US has also indicated they are considering renewing sanctions [Reuters report] against the Belarusian government. Hundreds of protestors, as well as seven presidential candidates, were arrested while protesting the results of the election, which declared incumbent Lukashenko the winner of the presidency for the fourth time with 79.7 percent of the vote. The government previously announced that the activists were being charged with organizing an unsanctioned meeting, a charge carrying a possible penalty of up to 15 years in prison. The US and EU [press releases] have led an international condemnation [AFP report] of the actions by the Belarusian police and have also questioned the legitimacy of the election results. The Belarusian KGB [official website, in Belarusian] announced the release of former presidential candidate Vladimir Neklyayev citing good behavior, but also noted that Neklyayev will remain under house arrest. EU officials are expected to vote on reimposing the ban on visas on Monday. The previous ban on visas was lifted in 2008 in order to encourage reform within the country.
Hundreds of activists were also arrested after protesting Lukashenko's 2006 presidential win, including opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich [JURIST reports].While Lukashenko has since sought to improve his country's ties with western nations, the US State Department has historically criticized Belarus' human rights record [JURIST report]. The UN General Assembly Third Committee and the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights [JURIST reports] have similarly denounced Belarus for human rights abuses. In 2008, the Belarus KGB detained at least 16 journalists [JURIST report] and searched their homes and offices for materials that allegedly libel Lukashenko. Also in 2008, Belarusian district courts sentenced at least 55 demonstrators [JURIST report], including journalists, for participating in a banned "Freedom Day" rally in Minsk to protest the presidency of Lukashenko. An opposition activist who was critical of Lukashenko during his 2006 presidential campaign was sentenced [JURIST report] to three years in jail in 2008 by a Belarusian court after being arrested for making comments that Lukashenko was connected to the disappearances of opposition leaders Yuri Zakharenko, Viktor Gonchar and Anatoly Krasovsky.