EU renews Belarus sanctions due to human rights concerns
LUXEMBOURG Oct 15 (Reuters) - The European Union extended on Monday its sanctions against individuals and companies linked to the Belarus government for another year, saying that Minsk had failed to improve its human rights record.
Sanctions are part of a policy the EU calls "critical engagement" with the government of President Alexander Lukashenko, an attempt to push it to implement reforms.
But a parliamentary election in September was widely criticised as being a sham and the Belarus government conducts widespread harassment of its critics, including use of prison sentences or fines for minor offences, according to one EU official.
The EU is not considering a wider trade embargo, preferring to take aim at people and businesses, the official said.
"The Council again calls upon the Belarusian authorities to stop the harassment of civil society, the political opposition and the independent media," said a statement by the Council of the European Union, which represents EU member states, after a meeting in Luxembourg of foreign ministers.
"As not all political prisoners have been released and no released prisoner has been rehabilitated,...the Council decided to prolong the existing restrictive measures until 31 October 2013," the statement said, adding that the sanctions policy was open and under constant review.
After introducing its latest round of restrictive measures, decided on March 23, the European Union had visa bans and asset freezes on 243 individuals and 32 companies due to their association with Lukashenko's government.
The parliamentary election produced 109 winning candidates, all from pro-establishment parties. Monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said many opposition figures had been blocked from taking part.
The parliament acts as a rubber-stamp body for Lukashenko, who has run the ex-Soviet state since 1994.
Relations with the West declined when he cracked down on street protests against his re-election in December 2010. Scores of his opponents were arrested and many are now lying low after periods in jail or have fled the country.
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