Opposition activists on hunger strike in Belarus jail; president praises police

MINSK, Belarus (CP) - Some 20 detained opposition supporters have gone on hunger strike to protest conditions at a Belarusian jail holding 400 opposition supporters, rights advocates said Tuesday, as authorities continued to crackdown on dissent following the disputed March 19 election.

Dozens of youth activists again flouted prohibitions on unauthorized demonstrations, rallying outside a Minsk jail where detained protesters were being held.

Meanwhile, authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, whose re-election to a third term was widely derided as fraudulent and sparked a week of unprecedented protests, commended police for "efficiently" maintaining the stability of the tightly controlled former Soviet republic.

"Peace and order have returned the country just as it was," he said in televised comments.

Rights supporters said nearly 1,000 activists have already been sentenced or are behind bars awaiting sentencing for taking part in protests or supporting the opposition following the election. So many were picked up in Minsk some were being sent to jails outside the capital.

A court also sentenced several journalists to jail on charges of hooliganism or participating in demonstrations, said press freedom groups. They said the convicted journalists included citizens of Belarus, Poland, Russia and Georgia.

Frederick Lavoie, 22, a Montreal-based freelance journalist was handed a 15-day jail sentence after being arrested while covering an anti-government protest in Minsk.

Canada has officially asked Belarus to free Lavoie on humanitarian grounds and allow him to leave the country. A Canadian official who met with him briefly Monday said he appeared well.

Lavoie was able to phone his parents in Quebec on Tuesday.

"He told us that he is doing well and he has not been mistreated," said Rejean Lavoie, the reporter's father. Rejean Lavoie said while the call was reassuring, he is still concerned about his son.

Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay called in the Belarus ambassador Monday "to voice Canada's condemnation of the absolute affront to democratic principles in the March 19, 2006, presidential election - an election that was not free and fair," he said a statement from Ottawa.

MacKay also raised the issue of Lavoie's detention, emphasizing Belarus is "responsible for his safety and well-being."

"During the meeting, I reminded the ambassador that the government of Belarus has a legal duty to respect the rights of its citizens to protest peacefully," MacKay's statement said.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a statement, saying: "As far as we're concerned, this journalist should be freed immediately."

"The actions of Belarus are unacceptable. We hold the government of Belarus responsible for the security and the health of that journalist until he's set free."

"We said after the Belarusian elections that the suppression of human rights there is not acceptable; the conduct and the intimidation used in those elections is obviously something we've condemned. Mr. MacKay has met with the Belarusian ambassador. We've demanded the release of the journalist and util that release is obtained we will hold the government of Belarus responsible for the health and safety of that individual."

"We can only condemn in the strongest possible terms the actions of the Belarusian government. I think we're part of a worldwide community that's done that and obviously we'll be further limiting our contacts with this government until some progress is made."

Rights advocates alleged prisoners were being held in crowded conditions and were denied water and the right to receive care packages. Up to 18 prisoners were squeezed into cells designed to accommodate five, they said.

The election, which officials said Lukashenko won with 83 per cent of the vote, set off days of demonstrations that drew thousands of people to Minsk's central square. The protests there ended when police staged a a pre-dawn raid Friday, breaking up an opposition tent camp.

Opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich, who officially received 6.1 per cent of the vote, called the election a fraud. The United States and the European Union said the vote was deeply undemocratic and have threatened sanctions against Lukashenko and other officials.

Pro-Lukashenko youth activists, meanwhile, again staged rallies outside the U.S. and Polish embassies.