By Vince Crawley
Washington File Staff Writer
Washington -- The United States is calling on Belarus immediately to release protesters and opposition supporters detained or arrested in connection with the country's "severely flawed" March 19 election, a U.S. diplomat told Europe's leading human-rights group.
Hundreds of around-the-clock protesters spent their fifth day demonstrating in October Square in the Belarus capital city of Minsk. The sustained public demonstration is unprecedented in Belarus, a former Soviet republic that has used repressive measures to silence critics of the government.
Aleksandr Lukashenko, first elected president of Belarus in 1994, won a new five-year term March 19, claiming more than 82 percent of the vote. Observers say Lukashenko is popular with many Belarusians and likely would have been re-elected in a free and fair vote.
Opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich, who won 6 percent of the vote, told the Associated Press that Lukashenko's margin of victory was "monstrously inflated" and is calling for a new election. The United States has refused to accept the results of the election and has supported the opposition's call for a new vote. (See related article.)
"Since the election, authorities have already detained over 100 peaceful protesters and opposition supporters, and arrests appear to continue," U.S. diplomat Julie Finley said March 23 in Vienna, Austria.
"In many cases, the detained individuals' offense seemed to be simply that of trying to bring warm clothes and food to those demonstrating on October Square," Finley told the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Finley is the U.S. permanent representative to the OSCE.
The OSCE Election Observation Mission found that the Belarus elections were "severely flawed due to arbitrary use of state power and restrictions to basic rights," according to a preliminary OSCE report released March 20. (See related article.)
On March 23, OSCE's chairman-in-office, Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht, expressed concern at the continuing arrests, detentions and trials, saying more than 200 people were taken into custody in the first three days following the election.
DETENTIONS VIOLATE FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND ASSEMBLY
A number of advisers for opposition candidate Milinkevich "were sentenced from eight to 15 days in jail for organizing an unsanctioned protest and alleged 'petty hooliganism,'" Finley told the OSCE Permanent Council. Before the election, Finley said, other opposition activists were arrested and jailed for three days to seven days.
"The 'crime' these people were charged with was that of attempting to exercise their rights to freedom of expression and assembly," Finley said. These rights are "enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act and numerous other international commitments to which Belarus has subscribed," she said.
In the 1975 Helsinki Final Act (also known as the Helsinki Accords), the states that now participate in the OSCE freely undertook commitments to certain basic principles of human rights and rule of law. All of the countries formerly under communist governments, including Belarus, acceded to the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent OSCE human rights agreements. The full text of these agreements is available on the OSCE Web site.
"When a country makes almost any form of peaceful protest illegal, then the problem is the law itself : rather than the peaceful behavior of the protesters," Finley said.
"We call on the Belarusian government to release immediately all those who have been detained or jailed in connection with the election and subsequent demonstrations," Finley said. "These continued abuses are clearly designed to stifle the fundamental rights of the Belarusian people."
De Gucht of the OSCE also called for the immediate release of those detained. "I also urge the authorities to show restraint and refrain from repressive actions," De Gucht said. The OSCE said many of those in custody have been apprehended while leaving October Square. In some cases, the OSCE said, those detained have been beaten during arrest.