Human-Rights Watchdog Warns Belarus on Pre-election Crackdown

Helsinki Commission Chair Brownback criticizes Russia for "complicity"

The United States Helsinki Commission, a congressional human-rights watchdog, has condemned the latest wave of repression in the lead-up to the March 19 presidential elections in Belarus.

"Authorities who engage in attempts at intimidation, electoral abuse or violence will face repercussions from the international community," warned Commission Chairman Senator Sam Brownback, a Republican from Kansas, in a statement released March 14. (See related article.)

Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko, who has been in office since 1994, engineered what the U.S. State Department has referred to as a "fraudulent referendum" in 2004 that enabled him to run for a third term. Both President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have referred to Lukashenko's government as the "last outpost of tyranny in Europe."

Bush on February 27 met with two widows from Belarus whose husbands disappeared in the 1990s, apparently for political reasons. (See related article.)

Brownback also said "the very few remaining independent newspapers in Belarus" were forced to suspend operations because the Russian printing house they depended on no longer will produce their editions for distribution in Belarus. Some "vague economic and political reasons" were given, Brownback said, accusing the government of Russia of "apparent complicity" with the Belarus leadership.

Following is the text of the Helsinki Commission release:

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U.S. Helsinki Commission

Washington, D.C.

March 14, 2006

Senator Sam Brownback, Chairman

Rep. Christopher H. Smith, Co-Chairman


(Washington) - Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) condemned today's arrests of supporters and aides of opposition presidential candidate Aleksandr Milinkevich and yesterday's sentencing of numerous Belarusian and Ukrainian activists to up to 15 days in prison. This comes on the heels of last week's repressive measures against Milinkevich campaign assistants, including the sentencing to 15 days imprisonment of Belarus Popular Front Chairman Vintsuk Viachorka.

"These latest arrests follow a disturbing pattern, where activists - including senior campaign officials - are prevented from working actively on behalf of their candidates in the final days of the campaign," said Chairman Brownback. "Authorities who engage in attempts at intimidation, electoral abuse or violence will face repercussions from the international community," he continued.

"Mr. Lukashenka has continued to engender a climate of fear, while at the same time expressing confidence in his victory. I ask Mr. Lukashenka to stop the bullying and to give the people of Belarus a chance to freely determine their own destiny," stated Chairman Brownback.

Brownback also criticized Russia for its apparent complicity in forcing the very few remaining independent newspapers in Belarus to suspend operations as of yesterday. These media outlets learned that the Russian printing house they relied upon, for vague economic and political reasons, will no longer produce their editions for distribution in Belarus. "Clearly the Russian leadership is squarely behind Europe's last dictator as he intensifies his crackdown in the final days of the campaign," said Brownback.

"These latest arrests are without a doubt part of a pattern of intimidation and suppression of independent voices, which has escalated as election day approaches" said Co-Chairman Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ). "Moreover, the detention of non-partisan election observers and the beatings and detention of opposition candidate Aleksandr Kozulin and his supporters as well as journalists, cast serious doubt as to whether this Sunday's election can be in any way considered to be free and fair."

"The searches, confiscations, beatings, arrests and imprisonments harken back to Soviet times, underscoring the weakness of the regime. Such actions indicate the contempt for freely undertaken OSCE commitments, and stand in glaring contrast to the growing reality of a democratic and free Europe," noted Co-Chairman Smith.

A transcript of the Helsinki Commission's March 9 hearing "Freedom Denied: Belarus on the Eve of the Election," is available on the Commission's Web site.

The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, is a U.S. Government agency that monitors progress in the implementation of the provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Accords. The Commission consists of nine members of the United States Senate, nine from the House of Representatives, and one member each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.

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