Belarus Terrorism Charge Targets Hunger Striker

Mikalay Autukhovich, a businessman from the city of Vaukavysk who was arrested in February 2009 on charges of arson, has been charged with preparing a terrorist act, according to a Belarusian news agency.

The charges appear to mark the first terrorism case ever to come before the Belarusian justice system and come against a man whom activists at home and abroad have regarded as a political prisoner in the tightly run country.

Investigators claim that Autukhovich "organized the preparation of a physical removal" of Hrodna Oblast Executive Committee Chairman U. Sauchanka, according to Belapan.

Autukhovich has been at the center of controversy for months, as the investigation dragged on without charges and he launched a hunger strike that eventually lasted 91 days. (Autukhovich received nourishment intravenously during the fast, which ended on July 16.)

The case sparked a visit to Autukhovich in his pretrial detention by OSCE envoy Hans-Hochen Schmidt and was taken up by rights groups like Charter97.

Autukhovich, from western Belarus, was arrested on suspicion of arson on February 8 along with two other activists of the entrepreneurial movement in Belarus, Yury Lyavonau and Uladzimir Asipenka.

Investigators later added a charge of illegal weapons possession against Autukhovich.

The arson charge stems from a 2005 incident for which several people are already serving jail time and damages have been repaid.

Claiming his arrest was politically motivated, Autukhovich launched a hunger strike on February 16, demanding a trial or his release until trial on a pledge not to leave the country.

Autukhovich and Lyavonau were each sentenced in July 2006 to more than three years in jail on tax-evasion charges.

Amnesty International declared them prisoners of conscience, and they were both released in the early 2009 amid pressure from the European Union and the United States.

written by RFE/RL's Belarus Service correspondent Jan Maksymiuk



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