One year ago today, Belarus's President, Alexander Lukashenko, broke his promises to his own people and to the international community to work towards a more liberal political environment in Belarus. On the evening of 19 December, we saw riot police brutally beat those who took to the streets to demonstrate peacefully against the rigged re-election of Lukashenko.
Before the election, there had been encouraging signs of a change of heart by Lukashenko in favour of step-by-step moves towards substantive pluralism and reasonable European standards.
The European Union welcomed these signals, offering to open new areas of co-operation with Belarus should those improvements materialise. Instead, we saw hundreds of innocent protesters locked up and scores sentenced to politically motivated prison sentences in flawed trials, among them several Presidential candidates whose only crime was to contest Lukashenko's Presidency.
Not content with oppressing all political dissenters, Lukashenko has now turned his gaze on those who have tried to defend them, jailing the respected human rights defender, Ales Byalyatski, for four and a half years on a trumped-up charge of tax evasion, adding one more political prisoner to the list.
And he has changed the law to further squeeze the almost non-existent space for political expression and civic activism.
Brave individuals are suffering inhumane treatment in prison because they refuse to give in to attempts to make them 'confess' to crimes they have not committed. We are very concerned about their plight, including Andrei Sannikov, Mikalai Statkevich, Zmitser Daskevich and Dzmitry Bandarenka.
Distracted by its campaign to suppress all resistance, the regime took its eye off Belarus's ailing economy and took no steps to plan for economic growth through modernisation. The result is runaway inflation and a severe devaluation of the currency, causing living standards to plummet.
A sensible privatisation policy and encouraging private enterprise would be key to putting the Belarusian economy on a sustainable footing, but Lukashenko refuses to do this. About 70 per cent of Belarusians work for the state and most are subject to renewable one-year contracts. This is a formidable weapon of quasi-totalitarian control.
In the face of Lukashenko's continuing repression against his own people, we have no choice but to argue for a strengthening of EU policy towards Belarus, both in terms of the sanctions regime, and in terms of EU support for Belarusian civil society. We will push for harsher EU sanctions, targeted at those responsible for serious human rights abuses and those who back the regime financially, not ordinary Belarusians.
At the same time, the EU will further increase its support for and dialogue with civil society organisations and the democratic forces in Belarus, helping them to overcome the obstacles put in their way by the regime and to voice their concerns.
The EU is not seeking to replace Belarus's regional relations, but to widen and complement them. We need to enhance the package of EU measures and assistance to help Belarus, once it has chosen the path of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law.
In the meantime, we will work to overcome the regime's resistance to the full amnesty and rehabilitation of all political prisoners and the attempts to increasingly isolate Belarus from its European neighbours.
There can be no bright future for Belarus as long as the leadership drags the country down. It should be up to the people of Belarus to decide what future they want. We will continue to push for the conditions in which they can be allowed to make that choice freely.
Guido Westerwelle, Carl Bildt, Radoslaw Sikorski and William Hague
Foreign Secretaries of Germany, Sweden, Poland and Britain
Bahrain opposition failing to engage with government
I challenge the negative interpretation of Bahrain that Mansoor al-Jamri and Patrick Cockburn seem so keen to convey (report, 13 December). The article was largely based on the thoughts and sentiments of Shia political activist Mansoor al-Jamri, thereby filtering acts, events and phenomena relating to Bahrain through a narrow analysis. This effectively ensured that Bahrain was interpreted as a dictatorial regime, determined to brutally quash any hope of political reform.
It amazes me that members of the opposition are so quick to relay their social and political grievances to the Western media yet aren't prepared to enter into engagement with the Bahraini government. Ever since the beginning of the unrest in Bahrain, the government has repeatedly sought to establish a national dialogue, to enable disgruntled parties the opportunity to voice their discontent.
Such efforts have been inhibited by obstacles repeatedly thrown up by the opposition, such as imposition of unrealistic terms and conditions deemed necessary for their engagement. Notably, Professor Bassiouni (the man who chaired the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry) criticised the opposition for refusing to accept the Crown Prince's initial offer of forming an all-encompassing national dialogue.
He felt that if the opposition had accepted, the regrettable events which followed could have been avoided. Furthermore, the King's recent endeavours to establish a broad-based national commission, for the purpose of making recommendations on how to implement the BICI report's findings, has unfortunately (again) been undermined by the opposition's refusal to co-operate.
Dr Omar al-Hassan
Dr Al-Hassan is the chairman of the Gulf Centre for Strategic Studies and a former Arab League ambassador to London and Dublin
The unofficial visit of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain to David Cameron's No 10 brought with it subtle resonations of Britain's relationship with Iraq during the Saddam era. King al-Khalifa and Saddam Hussein were both Sunni leaders of a British-born creation of a state that encapsulated rival tribes, and both times this caused instability in the regions.
King al-Khalifa rules a state with 70 per cent of its Muslim population as Shia, yet only 5 per cent of them maintain a senior civil servant-level job. When Britain left Bahrain in 1971, not only did they leave with a treaty that restricted the Al-Khalifa leadership from disposing of any territory, they also split important jobs between Sunnis and Shias 50:50. We are witnessing the repression of a majority population whose sole aim is to achieve independent sovereignty. Will the West intervene this time?
Bank super-rich are real dictators
Robert Fisk has hit almost the nail on the head ("Bankers are the dictators of the West", 10 December). It is not so much the bankers but their super-rich clients who exercise dictatorship over the so-called Western democracies.
The global crisis has furnished the proof, whatever the wishes of the peoples or the political complexion of elected governments, that the super-rich 0.1 per cent dictate that trillions of dollars, pounds and euros of their bad debts be assumed by the general public so private wealth can remain concentrated in their hands.
It is this "socialism for the rich", not fiscal irresponsibility, which has produced the current sovereign debt crisis. But it doesn't stop there. The very measures taken by governments to avert economic meltdown – zero interest rate policies (described by one banker as "crack cocaine for the financial markets") and "quantitative easing" – have created unprecedented profit-making opportunities for this same ultra-rich minority, who can now borrow money at negative real interest rates, use it to blow up new asset bubbles around the world, and generate profits on a scale that makes bankers' bonuses look like chicken-feed.
So, it is not a dictatorship of bankers, it is a dictatorship of capital, and it must be overthrown if humanity is to have a future.
Dr John Smith
Lecturer in International Political Economy, Kingston University
How dare David Cameron presume that he is protecting Britain's interests? Such arrogance. He has protected only the interests of the Square Mile and certainly not those of the majority (64 per cent) of British people who didn't vote Conservative at the last election.
How shameful. The Tory Right and their American friends have finally won the battle to keep us out of the European Project. De Gaulle was right about us. Eventually, there will be a United States of Europe and we will be an isolated and irrelevant off-shore island.
We are told the financial-services sector accounts for 10 per cent of our total national income. When are the ones who produce the other 90 per cent going to get a look in?
Who will help 500,000 people?
A network of troubleshooters to work with 126,000 troubled families (report, 16 December)? At a conservative estimate, that's 500,000 people. How many troubleshooters will be needed? Anyone with relevant experience is already in social-care organisations. What would happen to existing services with the loss of such huge numbers? Or are we thinking of inexperienced workers? Will any cash-strapped council agree to pay 75 per cent of the costs for the next three years? I doubt these proposals will get off the ground.
Polar hot air
The furore in accusing the BBC of faking the sequence in the birthing den is hot air (report, 16 December). The true provenance of the sequence of the cubs suckling in a den is clearly highlighted in the book based on the series. But what is the point of the criticism? After all, the film sequence, irrespective of how it was shot, is still of small polar bears at the beginning of their lives.
I went into our local Santander branch to pay £75 in cash into the account of a plumber for a small job, but was told that as it was not a private account they could not accept the money (letters, 15 December). I went to Barclays; they were highly amused and swiftly dealt with the transaction.
It isn't fare
I don't see why those over 60 in full-time work should get the free bus fares intended to help the retired (letters, 17 December). And I think that free travel should apply only to journeys beginning in an individual's council area. I see tourists in Cleethorpes not having to pay for the bus. Why should their holidays be subsidised?
A real fiasco
In the Matthew Norman column (14 December) you refer to fiasci. The plural of fiasco is fiascos in English (OED) and fiaschi in Italian.
Hugh Hollinghurst, Liverpool