New Year starts in jail for Belarus opposition

Mohideen Mifthah

MINSK, Dec 31, 2010 (AFP) - Belarus' opposition marks the New Year with hundreds of its supporters in jail and those still free subject to daily raids as the authorities show no sign of relaxing a post-election crackdown.

President Alexander Lukashenko launched the crackdown after winning a fourth term with almost 80% of the vote in December 19 polls, dampening opposition spirits ahead of festivities for New Year and Orthodox Christmas on January 7

"Such a massive wave of repressions has not happened before," said Dmitry Novikov, head of European Radio for Belarus, a Belarussian-language radio station based in Poland that has accreditation to operate in Belarus.

The station lost most of its equipment after a surprise raid on December 25. Nobody was in the office at the time and the station received no explanation for the incident.

"We hope it's a misunderstanding, we operate legally. But in reality the atmosphere is very nervous, and editorial offices are searched all over," Novikov told AFP.

Authorities arrested 600 people on election night after the police brutally broke up a rally of protesting polls that international observers said were well short of democratic standards.

They are still holding hundreds and have charged 22, including five former presidential candidates, with organizing mass disturbances, which could result in a 15-year jail sentences.

They are held in a prison controlled by the security police, still known by their chilling Soviet-era acronym KGB.

Among them are candidate Vladimir Nekliayev, whose life could be at risk after he was brutally beaten on election day and suffered a hypertension crisis in jail, according to his lawyer.

Also facing a 15 year sentence are candidate Andrei Sannikov and his wife and journalist Irina Khalip.

Belarussian child protection services already attempted to collect their three-year-old son from kindergarten as Khalip's mother Lucina does not have formal guardianship of the boy.

Meanwhile, independent newspaper Nasha Niva lost its computers on Tuesday evening in a raid, and KGB officers proceeded for an overnight search of the paper's editor Andrei Skurko's personal flat.

"They went through everything, including clothing," Skurko told AFP.

As raids continue throughout the country, rights groups are patiently waiting for Europe to take action after the seasonal holidays.

"We are waiting for foreign politicians to come back from holidays to apply pressure on Belarussian authorities and free political prisoners," said Ales Beliatsky, chairman of Spring 96, a human rights group in Belarus.

The European Parliament is to discuss the situation in Belarus and "possible further responses" on January 12, its speaker Jerzy Buzek's office said in a statement last week.

Spring 96 is operating on a few pieces of "ancient" computer technology after two of its offices were raided last week, said Beliatsky.

He said that nothing had been heard from the suspects held by the KGB and their lawyers had been forced to sign non-disclosure forms. However, he insisted they were not guilty.

"The charge of mass disturbances is unsubstantiated," he said, as no weapons were found at the square, where tens of thousands rallied on election night.

Some glass was broken in the doors to the government building by a small group of young men during the rally on Independence Square, but most people on the square were unaware of this, and some presidential candidates asked them to stop.

Since the rally, Belarussian bloggers have amassed photo and video footage of the vandals in an attempt to identify them, suggesting that at least some of them were provocateurs.

Lukashenko has ruled the former Soviet republic with an iron fist for 16 years after winning an election with 80% approval in 1994 on an anti-corruption ticket.

Those polls were the last recognized by international monitors as democratic, while re-elections in 2001 and 2006 were said to fall far short of international standards.


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