U.N. envoy tells Belarus to free political prisoners as U.S hints at sanctions

·2-min read

GENEVA (Reuters) - The U.N. Special Rapporteur told Belarus on Monday to immediately free some 530 jailed people whom rights groups consider "political prisoners" as Washington's envoy hinted at the possibility of further economic sanctions against Minsk.

Belarusian authorities have cracked down hard after massive anti-government protests erupted last summer over voter fraud allegations at an election that handed Alexander Lukashenko a new term as president. He denies wrongdoing.

Presenting her annual report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, U.N. Special Rapporteur Anaïs Marin compared Belarus to a totalitarian state and described a "deteriorating" situation since the election.

She pointed to the forced grounding of a passenger jet in Minsk in May that led to the arrest of a dissident blogger, something she said "illustrates the desire of authorities to end all forms of dissidence by purging society of elements it considers undesirable".

"It is a form of purge that recalls those practised by totalitarian states," she said in her speech to the Geneva-based forum.

Marin said that more than 35,000 people had been arbitrarily detained for exercising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly or expressing solidarity with victims of abuse.

Three opposition election candidates remain behind bars and the fear of repression has caused tens of thousands of Belarusians to flee to seek refuge abroad, she said.

Several other delegates also criticized the plane incident at the council debate, including the UK's ambassador, Simon Manley, who described it as "outrageous".

Benjamin Moeling, the U.S. delegate, hinted at new sanctions.

"Such contempt for international norms cannot go unanswered," he said, describing the plane incident as "sickening". "We will consider further actions as necessary," he added, in reference to sanctions.

The United States announced targeted sanctions against key members of the Belarusian government in May after the former Soviet republic's forced landing of the passenger jet and arrest of a journalist on board.

(Reporting by Emma Farge; writing; Editing by Alison Williams and Nick Macfie)

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