OSCE Chairman seriously regrets sentence against Belarus opposition leader Kozulin upheld during appeal

/ NEW YORK, 21 September 2006 - The OSCE Chairman-in-Office, Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht, expressed regret today that the Belarus authorities had dismissed an appeal from Alexander Kozulin, an opposition candidate in last March's presidential election, and left the severe sentence in force.

"I seriously regret the authorities handled the case against Dr. Kozulin in a way that the alleged offences were never removed and the appeal was dismissed," said Minister De Gucht. "The police crackdown on demonstrators who were peacefully expressing their opinion was impermissible and authorities should have applied restraint."

In July, the Minsk Moskovsky District Court had found Dr. Kozulin guilty of repeated acts of "hooliganism" and of "organizing and participating in group activities that gravely violated public order" and had sentenced him to five and a half years in prison. On 19 September, the Minsk City court, where an appeal hearing took place, supported the District Court's sentence.

"Although Dr. Kozulin has the right to appeal to a higher court, his sentence has entered into legal force," said Minister De Gucht. "This is a most disappointing development."

After the July verdict, the OSCE Chairman-in-Office had expressed hope that, even at such a late stage, the Belarus authorities could still respond to an appeal by defence lawyers by dismissing the charges against Kozulin.

"I regret that the authorities never took note of those calls, and did nothing to review the case and to drop all charges," said Minister De Gucht. "Even though representatives of the OSCE Office in Minsk were allowed to monitor the trial itself and the appeal hearing, it is more and more obvious that Belarus wants to use the case of Dr. Kozulin and his harsh sentence to set an example for other opposition members."

The OSCE Chairman said imposing jail sentences on political grounds was unacceptable and violated human rights. "I call again for the release of all political detainees in Belarus," he added.