By Jerome Taylor and Sarah Morrison
Belarusian dissidents held a protest last night outside the offices of Grayling, the international lobbying firm which has been criticised for leading an investment drive inside Belarus in the middle of a widespread crackdown on pro-democracy forces.
Flanked by celebrity supporters including Jude Law, Kevin Spacey and Tom Stoppard, protesters called on British businesses to stop investing in Belarus until all political prisoners are freed.
Hundreds of opposition activists have been imprisoned inside the quasi-Soviet state since last December's disputed presidential elections. A further 50 people were arrested over the weekend for holding a small rally to protest against the 16-year rule of Alexander Lukashenko.
Grayling, which is owned by Conservative peer Lord Chadlington, is the only global communications company with an office in Minsk. It insists it has never taken any money from the Belarus government and says that it is simply one of a number of multi-national companies seeking to do business inside the country.
But the protesters, who included relatives of some of those imprisoned by the Belarusian regime, say any investment in a country where 80 per cent of industry is still state owned will inevitably feed the coffers of a regime that is often described as Europe's last dictatorship.
"Grayling PR think that engaging with dictators can be a good thing, and can possibly bring democracy to our country," said Free Belarus Now campaigner Natalia Koliada after a meeting with lobby firm executives. "They didn't move an inch on their views but after meeting us I hope they might start to think it is possible to try another way."
Jude Law became involved in the pro-democracy movement after he met actors from the Free Belarus Theatre, a clandestine group that takes extreme risks in producing underground plays.
"I'm here because I'm appalled to find out that this company works within Belarus, Europe's last dictatorship and a country that is only two hours away from here," he said. "Freedom of speech is not just about freedom of expression but about fundamental freedom. We have the opportunity to protest and it is therefore our responsibility to speak for those who are less fortunate, especially fellow Europeans."
Michael Murphy, CEO of Grayling, defended his company's record in Belarus, saying the only project they have been involved in so far was an awareness campaign for hepatitis C.
"Grayling does not, nor has it ever, done any work for the government of Belarus, lobbied on its behalf or otherwise acted as an advocate for the government or its policies," he said. "Grayling is always very careful when it operates in countries which have a different approach to democracy and human rights than what would be regarded as normal in the EU or North America."
Later that evening the protest moved on to Parliament where Mr Law performed a play with members of the Belarus Free Theatre.
Mr Lukashenko's regime tolerates little dissent and has only recently opened the country to foreign investment on any large scale. Struggling to plug a gaping deficit, he recently announced a privatisation drive to encourage overseas investment.
But the country's renewed willingness open up to Western businesses has coincided with a dramatic crackdown on pro-democracy activists, as Mr Lukashenko struggles to contain growing frustration over his regime's lack of reforms and a flawed election.
A further 50 democracy activists were arrested over the weekend following a small protest in Minsk which was broken up by police. Some of those arrested included prominent opposition politicians such as Viktar Ivashkevich, leader of the pro-reform Belarusian Movement, who is currently being held in Akrestin Street prison, according to the opposition website Charter 97.
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