By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - The U.N. top human rights body agreed on Wednesday to set up a team of investigators to gather evidence about the alleged excessive use of force and torture by authorities in Belarus during their post-election crackdown on protesters.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory last August in a vote the opposition says was rigged and marred with violations. Lukashenko, who is 66 and has led his country since 1994, denies electoral fraud.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has called on Minsk to release people unlawfully arrested in the protests and to investigate some 2,000 complaints of torture or ill-treatment in custody.
On the basis of a resolution proposed by the European Union and approved by 20 countries, the Human Rights Council authorised a budget of $2.5 million and the hiring of nearly 20 experts and staff to conduct the investigation.
"We must show our support to the people of Belarus and hold perpetrators of grave human rights violations accountable to end the vicious cycle of impunity," Portugal's ambassador Rui Macieira, speaking for the EU, told the Geneva forum.
Belarus's ambassador, Yury Ambrazevich, described the move as "yet another attempt to interfere in the domestic affairs of our state".
Seven countries including Russia, a close ally of Belarus, voted against the resolution, while 20 others abstained.
"With gross human rights violations occurring on a daily basis in Belarus, today’s vote by the Council will be important in identifying those responsible for future prosecution," said Dave Elseroad of the Human Rights House Foundation in a joint statement issued by more than 60 activist groups including Human Rights Watch and the World Organization against Torture.
Russia's ambassador, Gennady Gatilov, denounced the EU resolution as an "extreme case of politicisation" and inteference in electoral issues.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Alison Williams and Gareth Jones)