EU Tells Minsk to Clear 3 Protesters

BRUSSELS -- The European Union on Tuesday condemned restrictions placed on the freedom of three men who took part in a rally of entrepreneurs in Belarus earlier this year.

Maxim Dashuk, Pavel Vinogradov and Mikhail Subach were placed under restriction for taking part in the January rally.

"These politically motivated condemnations constitute a severe violation of the fundamental rights and freedoms of these peaceful demonstrators," EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said in a statement.

"I ask their sentences to be reversed and call upon the Belarussian authorities to respect the rights of Belarussian citizens to assemble and to express themselves."

The three participants were subjected to a form of probation ranging from 1 1/2 to two years requiring them to keep to a strict daily timetable and report regularly to police.

Eleven activists had previously been sentenced in connection with protests by entrepreneurs, including market stallholders, denouncing new rules they said limit their right to do business.

Two received prison terms of 1 1/2 and 2 1/2 years.

The commissioner repeated an EU call for the release of all political prisoners and for the authorities to respect the right to assemble and media freedoms.

She said these steps and the conduct of free and fair parliamentary elections were essential for better relations between Belarus and the European Union, which Brussels wants to ensure stable energy supplies.

Belarus is a key transit route for oil and gas from Russia.

The West accuses President Alexander Lukashenko of crushing human rights by jailing opponents, shutting down independent media and rigging polls, including his own re-election to a third term in 2006.

Both the European Union and the United States have banned Lukashenko and other officials from visiting their countries.

Late last year, however, Brussels cautiously praised the Belarussian authorities for releasing some jailed activists and for getting police to show restraint at demonstrations.

The EU has also proposed an aid program -- provided Belarus introduces democratic change.

Belarus remains locked in a diplomatic row with the United States over human rights and Washington's imposition of economic sanctions, particularly against oil producer Belneftekhim.

Lukashenko said last month that he hoped a parliamentary election in September would deliver some seats to the opposition to disarm Western criticism of human rights. But he warned the European Union against any move to follow the United States by placing sanctions on oil firms, saying that 50 percent of EU oil and oil products and 30 percent of its gas pass through Belarus.