Europe watchdog raps Belarus over media crackdown

By Sylvia Westall

VIENNA, Feb 1 (Reuters) - Europe's main security and human rights organisation voiced growing frustration with Belarus on Tuesday, saying Minsk had refused to allow its media freedom chief to visit the country and continued to harass reporters.

Speaking a day after Western powers imposed new sanctions on the former Soviet republic, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe criticised Belarus for not cooperating.

"Scores of reporters have been detained, questioned or searched in the past six weeks," it said in a statement.

"Security officers have raided the editorial offices of several independent media outlets, confiscating computers, video cameras, DVDs and other equipment."

Western governments have pressed President Alexander Lukashenko to free protesters held after a December presidential election, judged as fraudulent by the opposition and international monitors. [ID:nLDE71026D]

Russia, an OSCE heavyweight, has supported Lukashenko and said on Tuesday that the sanctions were "counterproductive". [ID:nLDE71026D]

Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE media freedom chief, said she had written twice to the Belarusian foreign minister to request a visit by end-January to discuss the treatment of journalists.

"It is unfortunate that this was not made possible despite the Belarusian authorities' earlier assurances that they are committed to continue working with OSCE institutions," she said in the statement.

She called on Minsk to drop charges against reporters Natallya Radzina and Iryna Khalip, who were indicted and arrested in the post-election crackdown.

Although both were released last week, Khalip remains under house arrest and Radzina has been ordered not to travel outside her city, Mijatovic said.

The OSCE is already being forced to leave Belarus after criticising the conduct of the election. Belarus says the OSCE's mission in the country is complete and that it must leave.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis, whose country took over the OSCE's rotating chairmanship from Jan. 1, has made tackling media restrictions in the OSCE's 56 member states one of the priorities of his one-year term.

A former newspaper correspondent and spokesman, Azubalis has urged Belarus to let the OSCE stay in the country. (Editing by Maria Golovnina)


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