Belarusian human rights group reports police raid


The Associated Press

MINSK, Belarus -- A human rights group in Belarus said Wednesday police have raided its office and detained its director, the latest in a wave of actions against activists and opposition supporters in the authoritarian country.

Belarusian authorities have cracked down on dissent since presidential elections Dec. 19 in which Alexander Lukashenko won a fourth term. More than 700 people, including seven candidates who ran against Lukashenko, were arrested after the voting, most of them at a massive demonstration protesting alleged vote fraud.

Belarus also ordered the closure of the local mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose monitors strongly criticized the election as unfair.

On Wednesday, a lawyer for the Belarus Helsinki Committee, Garry Pogonailo, said police had seized computers at its office and taken its director Oleg Gulak in for questioning.

"Lukashenko lost the election and that is why this wave of repression has swamped the country," Pogonailo told The Associated Press.

The Helsinki Committee is an independent group whose name refers to the principles of the 1975 Helsinki Accords that were the precursor of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

In Warsaw, Belarusian opposition figures appealed Wednesday to the European Union and the world's democratic community to use diplomatic and financial pressure to free those arrested and push Belarus to hold a truly free election.

"Belarus must hold new elections because the one held in December did not meet standards" said Alexander Kozulin, who ran against Lukashenko in 2006 and was arrested at a protest rally a week after that election and imprisoned for two years.

Kozulin said freeing the prisoners should be the initial condition for any contact the democratic world might have with Belarus, a former Soviet republic.

It is unclear to what extent Lukashenko is susceptible to pressure from the West. The former collective farm manager has ruled Belarus since 1994, and is known putting down dissent, putting pressure on independent news media and retaining state control of most of the economy.

In recent years, the European Union and the United States have imposed travel bans on senior Belarusian officials and frozen some Belarusian assets.

Some of the European sanctions were suspended with the aim of encouraging Lukashenko to reform. The European Union last year promised 3 billion euros in aid if the presidential elections were deemed free and fair.

Those enticements came as Lukashenko feuded with Russia, its traditional patron, over price hikes for the below-market Russian oil and gas that is the linchpin of Belarus' economy. Shortly before the election Russia agreed to drop oil export tariffs; thereafter Lukashenko appeared to brush off the West.

In Warsaw, the daughter of opposition presidential candidate Vladimir Neklyayev, who was beaten unconscious and arrested Dec. 19, said she has not had any news of him for a week.

The last she heard was that he had difficulty speaking after his blood pressure suddenly rose in the KGB prison where he is being held.

"It is terrible for me because I really don't know the condition of my father," Eva Neklyayeva said. ---

Associated Press writers Monika Scislowska in Warsaw and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.


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