Freeze Deepens Between Canada and Belarus

Belarusian envoy finds Canada's response to imprisoned journalist and election abuses to be "a bit exaggerated."

The Canadian government's decision to freeze most bilateral relations with Belarus after Western nations deemed the recent presidential elections flagrantly unfair and following the imprisonment of a Quebec journalist is "a bit exaggerated," says Nina Mazai, Ambassador to Canada of the former Soviet state.

Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay summoned Ms. Mazai to his Ottawa office this week to demand the release of Frederick Lavoie, 22, who was arrested while covering nationwide pro-democracy protests in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. Mr. Lavoie is serving a 15-day sentence. Police have detained as many as 100 anti-government protestors since demonstrations broke out after the March 19 disputed re-election of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Ms. Mazai calls the public protests "illegal" and "unauthorized."

Ms. Mazai says Mr. Lavoie, a freelance reporter, traveled to the country on a tourist visa that he obtained from her Ottawa office. She explained his arrest is due to Mr. Lavoie's failure to obtain the necessary accreditation for journalists, compounded by the expiration of his tourist visa the day before his arrest on March 24. She says on his form Mr. Lavoie claimed to be a student at Laval University in Montreal, and that he intended to visit friends in Belarus. "It was not very sincere or ethical," she says.

Mr. MacKay is requesting that Mr. Lavoie be freed. "Surely the government would like to see its citizen free. That's normal," says Ms. Mazai, speaking in French. "But we have to also look at why he did this."

Canada was quick in publicly stating that it shared the worldview that opposition candidates and election workers were abused and harassed. "I am shocked that a dictatorial and abusive regime, such as this one, can continue to exist in today's Europe," said Mr. Harper, in a statement released March 22. The United States has dubbed Mr. Lukashenko "Europe's last dictator."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, speaking to reporters yesterday, said the Belarusian government is responsible for the safety and well being of Mr. Lavoie while he's in its custody. Ms. Mazai says the building where Ms. Lavoie is detained is "warm" and he has access to food. Mr. Lavoie's family says that British diplomatic officials had to provide him with food and clothing, and that conditions in the prison are deplorable. The British Embassy in Warsaw was the first to make contact with Mr. Lavoie, as the Canadian office was reportedly closed, but has since become involved.

Effective immediately, Canada restricted its diplomatic ties to consular relations (services to Canadians), human rights and democratic development and efforts related to international security such as the destruction of landmines. The suspension will continue until "progress is made," says Mr. Harper.

With interview files from Christina Leadlay