Monday, 02 May 2005

Lukashenko scared of Europe

Contributed by David Ferguson

"Aleksander Lukashenko is afraid of Europe. European flags are torn from people's hands when they demonstrate in Belarus, but people are no longer afraid," said Pavel Marinich, son of Belarus opposition leader and political prisoner Mikhail Marinich. Speaking to the Council of Europe's sub-committee on Belarus, Pavel Marinich was pleased that Europe 'calls a spade a spade' and defines the Belarus regime as a dictatorship. Since election in 1994, Belarus President Lukashenko has faced accusations of authoritarianism and involvement in mysterious opposition deaths - the latest being that of Solidarnost journalist Veronika Cherkasova, stabbed in her Minsk apartment in October 2004.

At the end of 2004, Michail Marinich was sentenced to five years in the high-security First Colony on charges that he misappropriated computers and other equipment from the US government. Richard Boucher, US State Department spokesperson, said the charges against Marinich are 'spurious' noting the US government has filed no complaint over the equipment: "The United States will consider measures it may take to hold accountable those Belarus officials who participate in such abuses of democratic procedures and human rights."

"The people of my country need practical action and useful sanctions. Denying visas to judges and law enforcement representatives would be a good example. All measures to exert pressure on the regime are welcome," said Pavel Marinich, speaking late last week at the Council of Europe's Spring Session. Rapporteur for the Council's sub-committee on Belarus, Azim Mollazade from Azerbaijan, called for closer contacts with other international organisations to maintain a common line of action towards the regime.

OSCE Ambassador Heyken recently visited Michail Marinich, who is being held at the First Colony Prison. "I was pleased to see Mr Marinich, particularly after recent reports about the state of his health," said Heyken. "While his health has certainly deteriorated since our last meeting, his mental resolve remains strong."

Last month, US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice continued her criticism of what she calls 'Europe's last dictatorship'. Speaking at a two-day NATO moot in Vilnius, with Foreign Ministers from the 26 members, Rice, together with Javier Solana, European Union Foreign Policy chief, met opposition leaders from the isolated country. "We talked about several ways that we could support efforts in Belarus. The point was made very clearly that the 2006 elections really do present an excellent opportunity for the international community to focus on the need for free and fair elections in Belarus," said Rice.

Since his election, the Belarus president has amassed powers with respect to law and order. "As the Head of State under the law and the Constitution, I am capable of controlling the power agencies, including the KGB, myself. It will always be so," said Lukashenko speaking at a visit to Minsk Automobile Plant. "I have not placed the KGB under the control of a certain, as they would nicely denominate it in some countries - civil society. The oversight of the civil society means collapse of power and law enforcing structures," said Lukashenko.

Belarus regularly comes in for heavy criticism for its human rights record. "We should not shrink back from speaking of a dictatorship as that is exactly what is growing stronger in Belarus," said MEP Elisabeth Schroedter. "And this is also the situation when political prisoners like Michail Marinich, Valery Levonevski, Alexander Vasilyev and professor Jurij Bandaschewski suffer restrictions to their freedom."

Aside from Marinich, OSCE chief in Belarus Eberhard Heyken also recently visited Alexander Vasilyev at Minsk's First Colony prison hospital. In September 2004 Vasilyev, together with Valery Levonevski, was sentenced to two years of imprisonment for defaming the President of Belarus. The two stood accused of slandering Belarus President Lukashenko by distributing leaflets with a poem by an unknown author at an unauthorized rally in May 2004. Heyken's meeting with Vasilyev lasted 45 minutes. Vasilyev, 59 years old, said that, due to surgery a number of years ago, he could not carry out heavy work. Despite high blood pressure, heart problems, Vasilyev was to be transferred back to the Prison colony No. 8 in Orsha.