With election nearing, Belarussians crack down

Reuters, The Associated Press

MINSK, Belarus Three courts sentenced a group of activists Monday to up to 15 days in prison for participating in unauthorized rallies, as tension continued to grow in Belarus before the presidential election Sunday.

Additionally, three of Belarus's few remaining independent newspapers suspended publication after a publishing house in Russia said it could no longer print them.

The incidents were the latest in a crackdown on those who do not support President Alexander Lukashenko, who is widely expected to win a third term. About 20 activists were detained Sunday as the opposition's main presidential candidate, Alexander Milinkevich, met with voters at an event the authorities called illegal, embassy officials and rights groups said.

Three Ukrainian activists were sentenced to 10 days in prison, according to the rights group Vyasna, while 12 Belarussian activists were fined or sentenced to terms ranging from 8 to 15 days in prison, a Milinkevich aide said.

"The court hearings are taking place without lawyers and look more like acts of frightening and intimidation," said Tatyana Protko, head of the Belarussian Helsinki Committee, the country's leading human rights group.

Opposition groups have warned of election fraud and called for peaceful protests on Election Day.

Belarus's top prosecutor, Pyotr Miklashevich, accused the opposition of holding unauthorized meetings and warned that "each act violating the law would be decisively suppressed by law enforcement bodies."

Members of the opposition say that they are being denied permission to use various premises and that the authorities then deem their outdoor meetings illegal.

State television, by far the most influential medium in Belarus, paints a rosy picture of events and portrays nearby countries as beset by turmoil and mass poverty. State television and newspapers rarely even refer to the two opposition candidates by name.

The independent press, meanwhile, faces problems of its own. Svetlana Kalinkina, deputy editor of Narodnaya Volya, said its publishing house in Smolensk, across the border in Russia, had said it had insufficient capacity to keep printing the three newspapers.

"When, a week before the election, someone refuses to print three papers, it is clear there are political reasons," she said. "The authorities must have done a deal with Russian authorities who found a way to pressure the printing house."

Narodnaya Volya, with a circulation of 30,000, had exploited loopholes in the law to print and distribute the paper with the help of volunteers delivering it to private homes.

Also affected are the weeklies BDG Delovaya Gazeta and Tovarishch, each with a circulation of several thousand.

"It is possible that Belarus will have no independent press on the eve of the election," Kalinkina said. "But I hope that we will still be able to find another publishing house."

The Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, vowed that it would counter any attempts by foreign citizens to "destabilize the situation in the country" under the guise of election monitoring.

Lukashenko, whose authoritarian style has led some in the West to call him Europe's last dictator, has accused Western countries of fostering popular uprisings like the ones that brought opposition rulers to power in Georgia and Ukraine, which like Belarus are former Soviet republics.

Lukashenko, who enjoys strong backing from the Kremlin, thanked Russia for its support and its repeated reassurances that the situation in Belarus would not be destabilized.

"We have a stable, normal situation," Lukashenko said, according to his press service. $@