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Lithuania Seeks U.S. Support For More Robust International Policy Toward Belarus

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

There was a testy debate today at the U.N. Human Rights Council over Belarus. The government of Belarus and its allies tried to halt discussion of President Alexander Lukashenko's violent crackdown on protesters after disputed elections. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports that the U.N. debate is just one part of a growing pressure campaign on Lukashenko.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Belarus calls the situation catastrophic. Anais Marin says hundreds of detainees were subjected to humiliating treatment last month, and she's heard credible allegations of rape and psychological torture.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANAIS MARIN: These victims are in such a state of post-traumatic shock that they still require urgent humanitarian aid. Excellencies, let's not allow another Iron Curtain to descend on the European continent.

KELEMEN: Her recorded message was interrupted repeatedly by procedural complaints from the ambassadors of Belarus, Russia, Venezuela and China. Belarus and its allies also tried to stop a recorded video from Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the woman who ran against the longtime leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SVETLANA TIKHANOVSKAYA: Our demands are simple and completely in line with all basic international norms. We demand to immediately cease violence against peaceful citizens. We demand immediate release of all political prisoners.

KELEMEN: Tikhanovskaya is currently in exile in neighboring Lithuania. That country's foreign minister, Linas Linkevicius, says he likes the fact that women are in the lead of this protest movement in Belarus. He says it clearly bothers Lukashenko.

LINAS LINKEVICIUS: Because when he asked whether a lady can be president, he said it's - no way in Belarus because it's not possible. And, suddenly, women came up in such a forceful way, I would say - peaceful and forceful at the same time with the flowers, with this enormous power. And that was not just symbolic. I mean, it's very nice. It's very good message.

KELEMEN: Linkevicius spoke to a small group of reporters at Lithuania's embassy here in Washington. He was here to try to drum up support for a more robust international policy toward Belarus. He knows that Americans are focused more on their own elections these days, and Europeans are often too slow to respond.

LINKEVICIUS: We are doing things too little and too late. That's really our habit.

KELEMEN: The U.S., Lithuania and about two dozen other countries issued a statement condemning the Internet shutdowns in Belarus and calling for the protections of human rights both on- and offline. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has suggested that more sanctions are on the way, too. He spoke earlier this week alongside his British counterpart.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE POMPEO: We're coordinating, too, with the United Kingdom and our European allies on sanctions and on ensuring the spotlight remains on legitimate aspirations of the Belarusian people.

KELEMEN: The key player, though, is Russia, which has long sought to form a union with Belarus. The protesters are not anti-Russian, says Linkevicius, but he adds Russia could overplay its hand if it continues to back Lukashenko, who's been president since 1994.

LINKEVICIUS: Russia is not superpower; it's super problem. It depends on Russia. If Russia will change their minds, at least corrected a little, that would also help. If not, that will prolong the crisis - will not solve, but will prolong and will be more suffering, more tension. I hope no bloodshed, but who knows?

KELEMEN: That's not to say he wants the rest of the world to wait and watch. Lithuania wants to see more sanctions on Lukashenko and his allies and more support for the women leading a peaceful opposition movement.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF KRAFTWERK'S "HOUSE PHONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.