By Jerome Taylor
Belarusian dissidents have called on international pop stars to boycott their country in protest at the imprisonment of hundreds of pro-democracy activists.
Shakira and Moby, two singers with a long track record of support for progressive political movements, are scheduled to give concerts in Minsk during the next two months – but human rights campaigners have asked them to abandon their plans.
The rock group Deep Purple, which has a loyal following in the former Soviet republics, are also playing at the state-owned Minsk Arena on Sunday.
During the past three months, more than 700 pro-democracy activists have been arrested in what human rights groups and foreign governments say is a brutal crackdown on opposition forces within one of Europe's last dictatorships of a recognised country.
Virtually all the politicians who dared to stand against President Alexander Lukashenko have been charged with organising a mass riot and face the prospect of lengthy jail sentences. Belarus is also the only country in Europe that carries out the death penalty.
Prominent dissidents have reacted with dismay that despite the continuing crackdown and widespread human rights abuses, pop stars are still willing to play in Belarus, a country in which 80 per cent of industry – including almost all the big music stadiums – are state-owned.
Last month a host of stars, including Beyonce and Nelly Furtado, were forced hastily to announce that they had given away proceeds from gigs they had performed for the family of the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, when protests against his regime broke out.
"I was appalled when I heard that these artists are coming to perform in Belarus," said Irina Bogdanova, the sister of the imprisoned presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov.
"Throughout recent history prominent singers, sportsmen and musicians have always taken a strong position towards countries when human rights are violated and where there is no freedom or justice."
Natalia Koliada, from the group Free Belarus Now, which represents the families of those who have been arrested by the Belarusian authorities, said: "We appeal to these artists to cancel their concerts in Belarus because any visit would give a sign to the dictator Alexander Lukashenko that kidnappings, murders and torture in KGB jails are acceptable."
Activists have expressed particular surprise that Shakira and Moby – both of whom have spoken out against rights abuses in the past – have agreed to play in Minsk. The Colombian-born singer Shakira is a Unicef goodwill ambassador who runs her own charitable foundation for children. The American songwriter Moby has previously campaigned for Move On, a US charity that raises money for progressive politicians. He also helped to produce a fundraising CD for the people of Tibet.
Shakira's concert, part of her global The Sun Comes Out tour, is due to take place in the Minsk Arena on 19 May. Belarusian websites have started selling tickets for Moby's concert on 12 June, although his official website has yet to list the venue.
Management representatives for both artists have yet to respond to requests for comment from The Independent over whether they felt comfortable playing in Belarus, given the human rights situation there.
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