Fear drives campaign against Belarusian opposition (News Feature)

By Stefan Korshak, dpa = Minsk/Kiev (dpa) - In Belarus, a person can get into big trouble just for posting a letter. Just ask Harry Pahanyajla. 'We are being accused of defaming the state because we asked the United Nations for help,' said Pahanyajla, director of Belarus' Helsinki Committee, a human rights organization. 'It's crazy, they want to close us down because I mailed a letter.' Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko has ruled his country with an iron fist since taking office in 1994. He unleashed a new round of crackdowns against his opponents in December, after demonstrators took to the streets to protest his re-election. Since December, the Belarusian secret police - still known as the KGB - have made hundreds of arrests and raided the homes and offices of hundreds more. Among those detained were seven candidates who opposed Lukashenko in the December 19 poll. For Pahanyajla, the knock on the door from the KGB came on Tuesday. 'There were four agents, and the moment they walked in it was clear their goal was to interfere with our work,' he said. 'They did what they wanted. They were there for more than two hours, and if they wanted something, they took it. They didn't ask.' Twenty-nine leaders members of Belarus' embattled opposition - a mix of politicians, independent journalists, and political activists - are still behind bars. Most face trial for allegedly organizing anti-government riots. Some face 15-year prison terms - harsh even by the standards of the Lukashenko regime. 'The authorities were shocked and frightened,' Aleksander Klaskovsky, a political analyst for the independent website Belarusian News, told the German Press Agency dpa. 'Not in their worst dreams did the regime expect to see 20,000 people demonstrating in the streets.' The scale of Lukashenko's purported victory - he claimed to have gotten 80 per cent of the vote - seemed outrageous even to some of his supporters. 'So now the regime must move to stamp out dissent, and take the gloves off,' Klaskovsky said. 'Scores are being settled. The media, the government, the police - any place there is potential resistance, these people are being pressured.' Earlier this week, KGB agents searched the Minsk apartment of imprisoned journalist Irina Khalip, the Charter 97 human rights group reported. They then ransacked the home of her mother, Lyutsina Khalip. The journalist's husband is opposition presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov. Both are now in jail. The couple's three-year-old son, Danil, is in the grandmother's care, but his fate is uncertain. 'The authorities are deciding whether to send Danil to an orphanage,' Lyutsina Khalip said in comments to the Belapan news agency. 'He has no idea what is happening or where his parents are.' The KGB has struck at any and all possible sources of opposition and dissent: the homes of freelance reporters and environmental activists, the newsrooms of provincial newspapers, the meeting halls of ethnic Polish groups. Agents have confiscated computers and DVDs - a huge loss for Belarus' tech-poor media. Hundreds of university students who participated in the December demonstrations were reportedly expelled at the end of the autumn semester. The Lukashenko regime has remained unapologetic, describing opponents as toadies of the West and independent media of engaging in 'irresponsible negativism.' A massive article Friday in the state-controlled newspaper Sovetskaya Belarussiya (Soviet Belarus) detailed alleged meetings and exchanges of money between western 'security operatives' and leaders of the opposition.' 'Resistance to Lukashenko will necessarily go underground, Klaskovsky said. 'It has no alternative. Radicalization of the opposition is a real possibility.' But Pahanyaljua is uncowed. 'We will keep on working; we will not surrender,' Pahanyajla said. 'And we will try very, very hard not to break any laws.'


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