By Jerome Taylor
Alexander Lukashenko, the President of Belarus, has hit out at plans by a group of British lawyers to sue him over his regime's ongoing crackdown on pro-democracy campaigners. The 56-year-old leader, often described as Europe's last dictator, said any attempt to pursue him through the courts had "zero prospects" and were a "cheap trick" by opposition politicians. He also attacked The Independent, which broke the news yesterday that H20 Law, a specialist human rights law firm, was planning to launch both a civil action and a private prosecution against him. In a statement published on Belarusian news sites, Pavel Legkiy, Mr Lukashenko's press officer, denounced the plan as "nothing more than a PR-action by these gentlemen lawyers. This is just a way to somehow draw attention to themselves by exploiting the popularity of the Belarusian leader and the seriousness of the political situation."
Mr Legkiy criticised The Independent, which has published a series of reports on the worsening human rights situation in Belarus: "The Independent... just bought into a cheap trick. This kind of thing hurts the image of a serious publication."
Human rights groups and foreign governments have accused Minsk of initiating a state-wide crackdown on pro-democracy activists after last December's disputed presidential elections. Virtually all the people who stood against Mr Lukashenko in the elections have since been arrested and charged with organising mass riots. Two presidential candidates are still in jail.
Hundreds more activists, campaigners and journalists have been rounded up on lesser charges and widespread allegations of torture have been documented inside KGB-run prisons.
H2O, who have in the past pursued the Real IRA and Colonel Muammar Gadaffi's regime through the law, announced this week that they were planning to use British and European courts to sue Mr Lukashenko and his lieutenants. The firm represents Free Belarus Now, a coalition of campaigners and family members of many of those who have been imprisoned.
Jason McCue, of H2O, responded to the Belarusian president's comments: "If Mr Lukashenko truly believes that this is just a PR stunt and that he has nothing to fear, then I presume he will readily confirm his willingness to accept service of the proceedings, attend and face trial. I am confident that the EU will lift his travel ban to do so."
He added: "Mr Lukashenko's response is correct that media attention will attach to this case, but wrong to suggest that it is due to my firm exploiting his popularity. Instead it is his notoriety, built on the allegations that have been levied against him by his own people, that has brought us here."
Monitors from Europe's main security and rights watchdog, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), were due to arrive in Minsk yesterday to attend the trials of opposition activists.
So far four people have been jailed for up to four years for taking part in a pro-democracy protest in Minsk on 19 December. The Belarusian human rights group Viasna says a further 38 people are facing charges of mass rioting, 26 of whom are still in custody, including two presidential candidates.
John Kampfner, CEO of Index of Censorship, said: "For 15 years... Lukashenko has crushed freedom of expression, detained opposition members, and rigged elections. Western governments have initiated trade deals, and put on the table IMF loans regardless of the domestic political situation. The Independent's focus on Europe's last dictatorship is welcome."
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