World Leaders Speak Out for Imprisoned Belarusian Protestors

(MINSK, Belarus) Former Czech President Vaclav Havel, former U.S. President George W. Bush, U.S. Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), and dozens of international leaders have taken to RFE's airwaves in Belarus to call attention to the plight of hundreds of Belarusian activists jailed in the wake of the dubious December 19 election.

In broadcasts that aired over the New Year's weekend, prominent global leaders read the names of all detainees on RFE's Belarusian station, Radio Svaboda. [LISTEN]

By reading each person's name, we are signaling that he or she is not forgotten.

Since the vote, which handed incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka a fourth term as president, more than 700 protestors have been beaten, arrested, fined, and imprisoned for disputing the election. The vote was widely criticized by the Belarusian opposition and Western observers as falling short of democratic standards.

Other prominent officials who participated in the Radio Svaboda project, known as "Voices of Solidarity," included U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Endowment for Democracy (NED) President Carl Gershman, Freedom House Executive Director David Kramer, Johns Hopkins University Professor Francis Fukuyama, Russian human rights activist Elena Bonner, RFE President Jeffrey Gedmin, and Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg. [See the full list and LISTEN]

George W. Bush read the names of five presidential candidates being held in a KGB prison in Minsk. [UPDATE: One of the candidates, Vitaly Rymasheusky, was released today]

"By reading each person's name, we are signaling that he or she is not forgotten," says RFE Belarusian Service Director Alexander Lukashuk. "We know from former Belarusian dissidents that inmates routinely smuggle shortwave radios into prison in order to listen to Radio Svaboda."

The "Voices of Solidarity" project is also drawing a huge online audience. In a single day after the crackdown, Radio Svaboda's website recorded more than 900,000 page views - a 20-fold increase in traffic. And more than 30,000 people listened to the station's streaming audio programs - a 50-fold increase.

In Minsk, Belarusian officials are defiant. On December 30, Lukashenka referred to the protestors as a "handful of traitors trying to overthrow the country." He hinted that some detainees would face stiff prison sentences.

In The Globe and Mail, RFE Writer-at-Large Jamie Kirchick described the scene on election night in the Belarusian capital as "like something out of the former Soviet Union." He said "the crackdown marks the tragic failure of a years-long engagement process spearheaded by the European Union." [FULL STORY]

For complete coverage, visit RFE's Belarus Crackdown Page. The site features video of the protests, photogalleries, commentary, and ongoing news updates from Minsk.

About RFE's Belarusian Service

In a country that has been referred to as "Europe's last dictatorship," RFE's Radio Svaboda is one of the few independent media outlets accessible to Belarusians in their own language. Established, in 1954, the station is on the air eight hours-a-day and, in partnership with Poland's Belsat television company, produces a popular weekly half-hour television news and current affairs program.


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