August 24, 2005

Web cartoonists face jail after leader's lampoon goes too far

From Jeremy Page in Moscow

ANYWHERE else in Europe, political cartoons would be considered harmless satire, designed more to amuse than to undermine the State. Not so in Belarus.

When animated mini films featuring President Lukashenko appeared on the internet, the KGB, the Belarussian security service, responded immediately. It raided three apartments in Minsk, confiscated 12 computers and interrogated Andrei Obuzov and Pavel Morozov, the two men who put the cartoons on their website for five hours.

Prosecutors have begun legal proceedings against them and Oleg Minich, the creator of the cartoons, which could result in jail sentences of five years.

Sergei Ivanov, the head of the investigations department at the prosecutor's office in Minsk, said that the three men were under investigation for slandering the President. He said: "We've had similar cases, but not with animated films."

Mr Minich, 40, said that the KGB had called him and his wife to its headquarters in the city of Grodno on Monday and confiscated their passports.

"I was shocked," he said. "I expect the worst now - maybe even prison if they say it is slander. We have no law here. Today I witnessed this for myself."

The reaction of the authorities illustrates the paranoia of Mr Lukashenko, whom Washington has branded Europe's last dictator. Since taking power in 1994, he has reintroduced Soviet-style economics and silenced his political opponents, often violently.

But Mr Lukashenko was badly shaken by the Orange Revolution in Ukraine last year and fears that Western governments are plotting an uprising in Belarus.

The United States introduced legislation last year authorising aid for opponents of Mr Lukashenko and this year it designated Belarus an outpost of tyranny. Mr Lukashenko has tightened restrictions on the media, the Opposition and non-governmental organisations, and promoted a plan to reunify with Russia.

Mr Obuzov and Mr Morozov were members of an unregistered civic group called Third Way, which posted two-minute satirical cartoons on its website. That site has since been blocked. Third Way was founded by students from the European Humanities University in Minsk, which was closed by the Belarussian authorities last year.

The cartoons mocked the leadership style of Mr Lukashenko, his reputation for rigging elections and his love of sports, particularly ice hockey.

One showed a weeping President wearing an ice hockey kit being comforted by President Putin of Russia, wearing judo gear, after being deposed by a Western-backed revolution. On Mr Putin's desk lies a decree granting Mr Lukashenko political asylum in Russia.

Reporters Without Borders, the media freedom watchdog, condemned the actions of the Belarussian authorities. It said: "This harassment is yet another example of the authoritarianism prevailing in Belarus. Three journalists have been given prison terms for 'insulting the President' in recent years and it would be intolerable if these young internet users were to suffer the same fate."

Yesterday the Belarussian authorities shut Den (The Day), an independent newspaper that had published verses deemed insulting to Mr Lukashenko. More than 20 independent newspapers have been closed in Belarus in the past two years, says the Belarussian Association of Journalists.

Last week Vaclav Havel, the former Czech President, and several other public figures called on the European Union and the US to adopt a common strategy to support prodemocracy forces in Belarus.

The statement from the Shared Concern Initiative was signed by George Soros, the financier; Richard von Weizsacker, the former German President; Mary Robinson, the former Irish President; and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.