August 4 2005

Arrested Belarus activist on hunger strike

By Jan Cienski in Warsaw and Raphael Minder in Brussels

An ethnic Polish activist under arrest in Belarus yesterday began a hunger strike as police began to jail local Poles who attended the weekend visit of a Polish politician.

The arrests, which have been condemned by the European Commission and the US State Department, are likely to worsen already strained relations between Warsaw and Minsk.

The tension has been caused by the attempt of the authoritarian government of President Alexander Lukashenko to gain control of the Union of Poles in Belarus, which represents the country's 500,000 Poles - 5 per cent of its population. The organisation is the largest of any type not under government control.

The hunger striker, Andrzej Pisalnik, is an informal spokesman for the group. He was sentenced to 10 to 15 days in jail for taking part in an unauthorised concert on July 3 celebrating Belarus's independence day.

Last week, police stormed the group's headquarters and reinstalled a former leader who supports Mr Lukashenko and who keeps the organisation away from political activity.

Earlier in the year, the group elected Andzelika Borys; Ms Borys has been summoned to the prosecutor's office for today. Her deputy, Wieslaw Kiewlak, was sentenced to 15 days in jail yesterday for meeting Donald Tusk, leader of Poland's centre-right Civic Platform party, who visited the west Belarusan city of Grodno on Sunday to lend support to local Poles.

The trip, said Maria Vanishna, spokeswoman for Belarus's foreign ministry, was an "open interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state".

"We would like warn that future trips like this which inflame national tensions will be firmly resolved according the norms of international law," she said.

The European Commission yesterday criticised the arrests. It said: "We condemn a climate of growing political repression in Belarus. This arbitrary use of force is unacceptable and we extend a message of solidarity to the people who are arbitrary victims of the use of force."

Poland last week withdrew its ambassador from Belarus, condemned the violation of the rights of the Polish minority and called for EU intervention. Brussels officials said it was too early to say whether the EU might step up its sanctions.