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Belarus: Repression Gains Momentum

Posted to the IUF website 14-Apr-2006

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IUF Office for Eastern Europe and Central Asia

Hundreds of people are being freed in Belarus following the repression unleashed against demonstrators protesting the March 19 reelection of Aleksander Lukashenko. For them, the many days of humiliation are finally over, yet the heavy gloom of jail hovers over the country.

The last dictator in Europe secured himself an unprecedented result of 82.6%, attaining over 90% in some provinces of the country. Thousands of those who campaigned with the independent candidates and those who opted for peaceful protests against the ‘clean sweep’ of Mr. Lukashenko were either truncheoned by the Spetsnaz (special military units) or fined. Human rights defenders report the jailing of some 500 people, including journalists, foreign citizens and diplomats. Their trials were a mockery of legal procedure.

Valentin Lazarenkov, chairman of the Brest regional branch of the Belarus Free Trade Union, spent 7 days in prison. He and two other union members were arrested near the BFTU office and charged with ‘disorderly conduct’, consisting, allegedly, in insulting a drunk. The trial, which took place on March 20, was closed: no relatives, colleagues or journalists were allowed in the courtroom. The principal witness in the case was not present. In fact, there was no testimony of the witness in the case file. The testimony was furnished entirely by two policemen. Lazarenkov is certain that his detention was a planned provocation on the part of the state. The daily visits that the police had been paying to the trade union office for a week before the arrest confirm this suspicion. The trade union leader now fears that he will be sacked from his job.

Vassily Levchenkov, chairman of the independent metalworkers union, was imprisoned for 7 days. He was charged with setting up an unauthorized meeting of opposition presidential candidate Aleksander Milinkevich in the city of Orsha. The meeting took place on February 24; on March 14 Levchenkov was handcuffed as he was leaving his apartment and taken to the police station. That same evening, in strict secrecy, Levchenkov was read the verdict of the jury, while his friends, who came to support him, were told the trial was being postponed until the next day. Throughout this time the union's office remained sealed by the police.

Sergey Lipnitsky, an independent trade union activist and executive secretary of the union at the Grodno Azot nitrogen factory, was taken to prison for 3 days while travelling to Minsk with friends on March 19, the day of the election. For two days his relatives and colleagues did not know his whereabouts.

Ivan Roman, a journalist and an activist of the Belarus Radioelectronic Industry Trade Union, was imprisoned twice. He was first arrested in Minsk, on March 18, the eve of the election, and released only on March 20, in the morning. In the meantime his family and colleagues tried in vain to locate him. Only after his release did it become known that he had spent the two days in the interim custody quarters of the city of Lida. Roman later recounted that in one of the police stations of Minsk a stranger in civil uniform approached him, held a loaded gun to his head and told him that as a trade union leader he was being charged with terrorism. Should he attempt to flee at any time, he was warned, his fate was sealed. The court eventually accused Roman of uttering obscenities, for which he was fined. His second detention took place on March 23 and was to last for 13 days, under Article 156 (Disorderly Conduct) of the Administrative Violations Code. Never was the charge of "disorderly conduct" so popular as during the presidential campaign and its aftermath, as hundreds of people were arrested on this and other equally absurd charges

The Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus (FBP) again demonstrated that it has become a fully integrated part of the state apparatus since being definitively taken over by Lukashenko in 2002 (click here for background) The FBP's website boasted that some 4,500 trade union "activists" were among those spearheading Lukashenko's electoral campaign. Out of the 2 million signatures that were collected support of Lukashenko's candidacy, the FBP allegedly collected one million three hundred thousand. A total of 341 FBP people, according to the organization's website, sat on the territorial electoral commissions and another 4,355 were represented in the district commissions. Of the overall 17,000 members of the electoral committees only one person represented democratic forces.

The 2006 presidential election was marked up by unprecedented repression, with the independent trade union movement experiencing its full force. The first criminal cases for participating in protest actions are now under way.