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Belarus rights record under fire at U.N., West seeks prisoner releases

FILE PHOTO: Police use a water cannon during an opposition rally to reject the presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus October 4, 2020. REUTERS/Stringer

GENEVA (Reuters) - Western countries called on Belarus on Monday to halt its crackdown on peaceful protesters, release ‘political prisoners’ and engage in democratic dialogue with the opposition, nearly three months after a disputed presidential election.

Riot police on Sunday fired warning shots into the air, used stun grenades and arrested more than 300 people to deter tens of thousands of Belarusians who marched through Minsk to demand veteran leader Alexander Lukashenko leave power.

Mass demonstrations have taken place since the Aug. 9 election. Lukashenko, in power for 26 years, rejects accusations the vote was rigged and says he has no intention of quitting.

At a regular review of Belarus at the U.N. Human Rights Council, Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, Switzerland and the United States called for releasing people rounded up in protests and for investigating widespread allegations of torture.

The Aug. 9 elections were fraudulent, said Andrew Bremberg, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva.

“We are deeply concerned by the ongoing use of violence, intimidation and repression against the Belarusian people,” he said, calling on the authorities to “demonstrate restraint and engage in a genuine dialogue with Belarusian civil society”.

The review was the rights body’s first regular examination of Belarus in five years. Yury Ambrazevich, Belarusian ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, told the forum his country had “the necessary instruments itself peacefully to restore stability in society”.

“We are convinced that only through respectful dialogue without external pressure, blackmail or conditions is it possible to make true progress,” he said.

Germany’s ambassador Michael Freiherr von Ungern-Sternberg called on Belarus to conduct an independent investigation into all allegations of torture and ill-treatment. Francois Rivasseau, France’s ambassador, called for Belarus to conduct “free and fair elections in line with international standards”.

Additional reporting by John Chalmers in Brussels; Editing by Peter Graff