Belarus Won't Take Custody of Leader's Son


MOSCOW - Authorities in Belarus have backed off a threat to seize custody of the 3-year-old son of an imprisoned opposition leader there, ruling that the boy's grandmother was fit to take care of him.

The boy, Danil Sannikov, has been in the care of his grandmother since his parents were arrested along with more than 600 others for participating in a largely peaceful protest against the victory of President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko in apparently fraudulent elections last month. Mr. Lukashenko was inaugurated Friday.

Within days of the arrests, the security services - still called the K.G.B. in Belarus, a former Soviet republic - ordered child welfare services to open custody proceedings. The boy's family said the move was an attempt to put pressure on his parents, Andrei Sannikov, a former presidential candidate, and his wife, Irina Khalip, a journalist.

After the family's plight was described in an article in The New York Times recently, the authorities in Belarus came under heavy criticism from abroad.

Lyutsina Khalip, Danil's grandmother, said Friday that the decision to confirm her custody had been unexpected.

"It happened all of a sudden," she said by telephone, sounding jubilant. "They called and told me to come immediately. I don't know what happened there, but as a result I received this present."

Still uncertain, however, are the fates of Danil's parents, who along with about 30 other opposition leaders face up to 15 years in prison for their roles in last month's protest.

On Friday, Mr. Lukashenko's official newspaper, Sovietskaya Belorussia, published an article accusing Mr. Sannikov and Irina Khalip of receiving millions of dollars in foreign financing to aid in overthrowing the government.

"Pompous talk of democratic values was only a smoke screen for receiving money from abroad," the newspaper wrote. "In this case, the issue was an illegal intent to achieve political goals in Belarus with the aid of foreign funding."

Since their arrests, those still in prison had been denied contact with their families and access to lawyers. But this week, Lyutsina Khalip received a letter from her daughter, Irina, the first since just after her arrest. The letter contained few details, beyond an inquiry about Danil and an entreaty not to worry.

"What else could she write from there?" the elder Ms. Khalip said. "Nothing is known; there is no information at all."

Meanwhile, there have been almost daily reports of raids by the K.G.B. on the homes and offices of those suspected of ties to the opposition. In the raids, agents typically confiscate computers, flash drives and cameras, and interrogate people for hours, human rights groups say. Those found to have participated in the protest last month are often jailed.

The continued crackdown on the opposition has drawn impassioned criticism from the West. On Thursday, the European Parliament approved a resolution calling for stiff sanctions against Mr. Lukashenko and other top Belarussian officials.

In a statement, European lawmakers said the treatment of Danil and his family was of particular concern.

Among the sanctions proposed are "a travel ban and asset freeze on Belarussian officials, judges and security officers involved in the violent election crackdown," the statement said. European lawmakers expect final approval of the sanctions by the end of the month.

Officials in the United States are also considering strengthening sanctions already in place. The head of the State Department's human rights and democracy bureau will be in Belarus this weekend to make an assessment.

Mr. Lukashenko has responded angrily to what his government has described as a plot by Western powers to unseat him, and warned against interfering in his country's affairs.

"I'd like to remind those unfriendly to Belarus of a piece of folk wisdom," he said Friday at his inauguration to a fourth term as president. "Do not fan the fires of your neighbor; the fire might inadvertently spread to your home."

Speaking in the cavernous Palace of the Republic in the capital, Minsk, the president said that "the time for revolutions was over," and vowed to protect Belarus "from any intrigues both external and internal."

Mr. Lukashenko won the elections with almost 80 percent of the vote, though independent observers noted widespread fraud in the ballot counting.


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