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Vigil Held In Belarus For Jailed Ethnic Poles

Andzelika Borys, chairwoman of the ZPB

Andzelika Borys, chairwoman of the ZPB

HRODNA, Belarus -- A prayer vigil is being held today in the western Belarusian city of Hrodna to show solidarity with the jailed leaders of an ethnic Polish cultural organization, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reports.

Union of Poles in Belarus (ZPB) activists Meczislaw Jaskiewicz, Andrzej Poczobut, and Igor Bancer were jailed for five days on February 15 for staging an unsanctioned demonstration on February 10.

Led by a Catholic priest, about 100 people gathered outside the Hrodna courthouse today to show their support for the jailed activists and for local ZPB leader Teresa Sobal, who went on trial today on charges of misappropriation of funds.

Andzelika Borys, the chairwoman of the ZPB, was not allowed to attend Sobal's trial although she had been scheduled to testify as a witness.

Borys told her supporters today that she was invited by European officials to visit Warsaw and Brussels to discuss the harassment of the ZPB but would not leave Belarus while her three associates remain in jail.

Bancer reportedly began a hunger strike in jail today.

ZPB activists rallied on February 10 against Belarusian officials' decision two days earlier to evict the ZPB from its offices in the town of Ivyanets, about 50 kilometers from Minsk.

A Hrodna court fined Borys 1 million Belarusian rubles ($360) on February 15.

Belarusian police also detained at least 30 other ZPB activists and supporters in the last several days.

The ZPB -- a nonpolitical organization set up to promote Polish culture and language -- was deregistered by Belarusian authorities after it elected Borys as its chairwoman in 2005. Officials then registered the pro-Minsk Union of Belarusian Poles as the official organization to represent ethnic Poles in Belarus.

But the Polish government recognizes the ZPB as the only legal representative of Belarus's ethnic Poles.

Polish politicians -- including President Lech Kaczynski and Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski -- have criticized the Belarusian government for its treatment of ZPB activists. The Polish parliament is drafting a resolution today about the ZPB's plight.

EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton and other EU officials have condemned the Belarusian police action against the ethnic Poles. An EU Parliament delegation is due to visit Belarus on February 25.

About 4 percent of Belarus's 9.7 million people are ethnic Poles.