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December 19, 2011

US House Expands Sanctions Against Belarus

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill Tuesday tightening sanctions against Belarusian officials for their bloody year-long crackdown on anti-government protesters.

The bill expands the list of Belarusian officials subject to a visa ban and financial penalties. It demands freedom for all political prisoners.

It also calls on the International Ice Hockey Federation to suspend plans to hold the 2014 world championships in Minsk, saying President Alexander Lukashenko would use such a major sporting event to legitimize his rule.

The sponsor of the bill, New Jersey Republican Chris Smith, says President Lukashenko, by far, has the worst human rights record of any government in Europe.

A number of people, including at least two opposition presidential candidates, remain in prison one year after Belarusian police violently cracked down on thousands of demonstrators against President Lukashenko's re-election. The opposition says the vote was rife with fraud.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton say they are gravely concerned that new laws in Belarus will further restrict fundamental rights to free speech and assembly.

Clinton and Ashton say improved ties with Belarus depend on its commitment and respect for basic human rights, the rule of law and democracy. They say the United States and European Union are willing to help Belarus meet these obligations.

The United States has called President Lukashenko Europe's last dictator for suppressing human rights and free speech, silencing independent media, and rigging elections. Mr. Lukashenko has accused the West of meddling in Belarusian affairs.