Belarus shuts station over opposition messages


MINSK, Belarus (AP) - Officials in Belarus shut a popular radio station Wednesday, apparently over a message aired by an opponent of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko calling on people to protest in the streets.

Lukashenko was declared president last month in what officials called a landslide victory, prolonging his 14-year reign in the former Soviet nation that the U.S. has called Europe's last dictatorship.

Police arrested 700 people, including 30 journalists and seven rival candidates, during subsequent protests alleging vote fraud. Two rivals had used airtime on the Avtoradio station to promote their candidacies.

That station, which claims up to 500,000 listeners across the capital, Minsk, was shut down Wednesday, accused of propagating extremism.

Yury Bazan, the station's general director, rejected the accusation, telling The Associated Press that officials hadn't even explained the decision.

Asked what could have angered authorities, Bazan said "we scanned all the recent airtime and found and just one single phrase ... that the fate of the country is decided not in kitchens but on the streets."

Kitchens are regarded across the former Soviet Union as a place of late-night chats and political discussions between friends and relatives; they were, and for many they remain, the only spare room in the apartment.

The phrase was broadcast by presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov in the run-up to the Dec. 19 vote.

Sannikov helped bring tens of thousands of opposition supporters out to march through Minsk on election night to protest fraudulent vote counting. Officials said Sannikov, who was beaten by police in the protests and then jailed, came a very distant second, getting just over 2 percent compared with Lukashenko's claimed 80 percent.

Sannikov's mother-in-law was interrogated by police Wednesday, maintaining the pressure on the beleaguered opposition movement three weeks after the elections.

During that time, the Belarusian KGB searched the homes and offices of independent journalists, according to journalists and a media watchdog group. Reporters Without Borders condemned the systematic raids, which it said seem aimed at seizing all documents and files related to election coverage.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said Wednesday that Germany is considering reviving political sanctions on Belarus over the flawed vote and protests that followed.

The European Union and U.S. in recent years imposed travel bans on senior Belarusian officials and froze some assets. Some European sanctions were suspended with the aim of encouraging Lukashenko to reform.

David Nowak contributed to this report from Moscow


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