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Ihar Losik ended a six-week hunger strike less than two months ago. (file photo)

The bipartisan Human Rights Commission of the U.S. House of Representatives has urged the government of Belarus to immediately release jailed blogger and RFE/RL consultant Ihar Losik and other "political prisoners."

"We are deeply troubled by the Belarusian government's decision to file new charges against Ihar, after having kept him behind bars and away from his young family for the past nine months," the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission co-chairs, Representatives James McGovern (Democrat) and Christopher Smith (Republican), wrote in a March 13 statement.

"We condemn the brutal crackdowns and sham charges leveled at the press in Belarus for reporting on the repressive actions of the government of [Alyaksandr Lukashenka]," the statement continued. "Ihar and other political prisoners must be released immediately."

The day before, the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which oversees RFE/RL and other U.S international broadcasters, called the "false charges" against Losik "unacceptable."

"Belarusian authorities should drop all charges against Ihar and immediately release him," acting USAGM Chief Executive Officer Kelu Chao said in a statement.

Losik was detained in June 2020 and accused of using his Telegram channel to "prepare to disrupt public order" and "preparation for participation in riots" ahead of a presidential vote in August that the opposition has said was rigged for Lukashenka.

Months of unprecedented protests have ensued and been met by thousands of arrests, brutal treatment of detainees, and a ruthless crackdown on media and journalists.

Losik's wife, Darya, said on March 11, citing a lawyer, that her husband had slit his wrists in front of an investigator and lawyer and restarted a hunger strike after learning of the new charges this week.

She said the precise wording of the new charges was unknown and demanded that Lukashenka explain why her husband had been in prison for nine months.

'Mockery Of Justice': Wife Of Detained Belarusian Blogger Demands His Release
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Losik, a 28-year-old consultant for RFE/RL on new-media technologies and a father of a 2-year-old daughter, ended a six-week hunger strike less than two months ago.

RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said after learning of the new charges that "All of us at RFE/RL are deeply distressed by today's new charges against Ihar, and his deteriorating health situation."

Crisis In Belarus

Read our coverage as Belarusians continue to demand the resignation of Alyaksandr Lukashenka amid a brutal crackdown on protesters. The West refuses to recognize him as the country's legitimate leader after an August 9 election considered fraudulent.

He added: "Journalism is not a crime and Ihar has been unjustly detained for far too long. Ihar and his family should not be tortured in this way."

Losik was slapped with charges in December 2020 that could result in an eight-year prison term.

In protest, Losik, who has been recognized as a political prisoner by rights activists, launched his initial hunger strike.

After ending that action in late January, a handwritten letter from Losik appeared in mid-February following news of a two-year jail sentence given to two journalists from Belsat, a Polish-funded news organization.

"I have no illusions. I think it'll be about five more years, and by that time I will have died. I no longer have any desire to do anything," Losik wrote. "So much has already been done, and all for naught: Nothing influences anybody. I'll say it honestly: I doubt anything will change."

Western governments have refused to acknowledge Lukashenka as the winner of the August 9 vote, and imposed sanctions on him and his allies, citing election rigging and the police crackdown.

Lukashenka has refused to step down and says he will not negotiate with the opposition.

Dozens of ethnic Kazakhs from China have been picketing the Chinese Consulate in Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty, for more than a month over relatives being held in Xinjiang.

NUR-SULTAN -- Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry says it has asked Chinese authorities to "help resolve issues" raised by ethnic Kazakhs in China, who have been demanding their relatives' release from custody in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang.

Mukhtar Karibai told reporters in Nur-Sultan on March 12 that the decision "to ask China for help" was made after it became obvious that dozens of ethnic Kazakhs from China, who have been picketing the Chinese Consulate in Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty, for more than a month "have not been following sanitary regulations to prevent the spread of the coronavirus."

"We have asked the Chinese side to meet with those people and make certain decisions regarding their complaints so that [the protesters] stop gathering [in front of the Chinese consulate] every day," Karibai said.

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Karibai confirmed that some naturalized Kazakh citizens and ethnic-Kazakh Chinese citizens, whose relatives reside in Kazakhstan, have not been able to leave Xinjiang to come to Kazakhstan for some time, adding though that "more than 90 percent of such people have returned to Kazakhstan" by now.

"We are sticking to the international norm, according to which, one country cannot interfere in the internal affairs of another country...But because there is another norm which does not allow the separation of close relatives, we are trying to do what we can to resolve the issue," Karibai said.

"At this point there are 5 to 6 ethnic Kazakhs stuck in Xinjiang who are not able to join their families [in Kazakhstan]. All of them are Chinese citizens. Some media reports say they broke the law in China, and that is why very likely they are being kept in custody there. It might take longer time to solve their issues," Karibai added.

When asked by an RFE/RL correspondent about reports saying that the number of ethnic Kazakhs held in custody in Xinjiang is much higher, Karibai said he could not comment on "unofficial information."

Karibai's statement came one day after the U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan posted an interview on Facebook with Sairagul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh from Xinjiang, who was one of the first individuals to speak publicly about so-called reeducation camps for Xinjiang's indigenous, mostly Muslim ethnic groups.

Sauytbay, who fled China in April 2018 and is currently living in Sweden, repeated that thousands of ethnic Kazakhs, Uyghurs, and other Muslims in Xinjiang were undergoing "political indoctrination" at a network of "reeducation camps," facing "torture and humiliation" there.

On March 10, U.S. Embassy officials met with other ethnic Kazakhs who fled Xinjiang and are currently in Kazakhstan, and discussed their ordeals in China.

The U.S. State Department has said that as many as 2 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and members of Xinjiang's other indigenous, mostly Muslim, ethnic groups have been taken to detention centers.

China denies that the facilities are internment camps.

Kazakhs are the second-largest Turkic-speaking indigenous community in Xinjiang after Uyghurs. The region is also home to ethnic Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and Hui, also known as Dungans.

Han, China's largest ethnicity, is the second-largest community in Xinjiang.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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