Belarus rights record under fire at UN

Belarus Interior Ministry troops demonstrate they skills to visiting journalists in Minsk, on March 14, 2012 (AFP Photo/Viktor Drachev)

Belarus Interior Ministry troops demonstrate they skills to visiting journalists in Minsk, on March 14, 2012

Belarus Interior Ministry troops demonstrate they skills to visiting journalists in Minsk, on March 14, 2012 (AFP Photo/Viktor Drachev)

Geneva (AFP) - Belarus faced harsh criticism Monday at a UN review of its rights record, with diplomats decrying an "atmosphere of intimidation" and urging the country to ensure free and fair elections.

Gathered at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, diplomats called on Belarus, which rights groups have dubbed Europe's last dictatorship, to release all political prisoners and to halt executions.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, 60, has been in power for more than two decades and is eyeing another term after November elections.

US ambassador to the rights council, Keith Harper, urged Belarus to "amend its electoral laws to bring them in line with OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) recommendations."

The country, he told the council, must "demonstrate respect for a democratic political process, freedom of association and freedom of expression ahead of the 2015 presidential election".

Belarus representative to the UN in Geneva Mikhail Khvostov insisted that much has been done to ensure that the elections will be conducted "calmly, honestly, transparently".

He added that regional and international observers were invited to the country to help ensure the elections are held in accordance with international standards.

While welcoming the fact that OSCE observers had been invited to oversee the election process, many of the 95 diplomats who spoke at Belarus's so-called Universal Periodic Review -- which all 193 UN countries must undergo every four years -- said a lack of freedoms in the country could hamper the vote.

Canada's envoy voiced concern that "intimidation of and restrictions on opposition parties and journalists will prevent the people of Belarus from exercising their right to free and fair elections".

Swiss representative Barbara Fontana meanwhile said Bern "deplores the atmosphere of intimidation that surrounds civil society activities" in Belarus.

She especially urged Belarus to "decriminalise" the activities of unregistered NGOs and to halt all "administrative and judicial harassment" of civil society activists.

Swedish representative Jan Knutsen blasted Belarus over its continued use of the death penalty.

Belarus "remains the sole country in Europe that continues to exercise the death penalty", he said, adding that three people had been executed last year.

"Executions in Belarus are non-public events and the locations are not disclosed. Relatives are neither handed the body of an executed person nor informed about the site of burial," he said.

Belarussian Deputy Foreign Minister Valentin Rybakov said a parliamentary group had examined the issue in 2013 and found that around 70 percent of Belarussians wanted to maintain the death penalty, which is only used "for the most serious cases".