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Belarus: Critics Target Minsk In Weeks Since Referendum

A storm of criticism has rained on Belarus in the several weeks since the Alyaksandr Lukashenka government won a referendum -- widely denounced as fraudulent -- that will permit Lukashenka to seek another presidential term. The religious news agency Forum 18 reports continued suppression of religious minorities. And international press organizations such as Reporters Without Borders and the International Press Institute are expressing alarm at further suppression of an already controlled press. RFE/RL reports that a variety of government actions are limiting free expression in Belarus.

Prague, 9 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Belarus held the referendum three weeks ago and its election officials reported results that, although widely disputed, set President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to dancing in celebration.

In the weeks since, international watchdog organizations have practically queued up to dash cold water on the Lukashenka government, protesting against what they say are systematic suppression of human rights -- such as freedom of religion and freedom of the press -- of various kinds in Belarus.

One such group is the Forum 18 News Service, which specializes in reporting on religious developments in countries formerly in the Soviet sphere. Forum 18 correspondent Geraldine Fagan told RFE/RL: "Rather coincidentally, in the middle of November, the deadline for compulsory reregistration of all religious organizations runs out. So, actually, I would say that in the religious sphere, we've been looking for two years now to see what is going to happen."

Fagan said that early indications are negative. One such indication, she said, is continued police application of legal and extralegal measures that prevent religious groups other than the approved Eastern Orthodox congregations from building, buying, or renting buildings. About 80 percent of Belarusians identify themselves as Eastern Orthodox.

"Well, certainly, within the last [few] weeks, organizations, religious organizations and churches that don't have their own buildings, which is obviously not coincidentally the majority of Protestant [Christian] groups. They have been having difficulty if they try to hold religious services at their own home addresses," Fagan said.

The latest example of these intertwined restrictions is that of the Full Gospel evangelical group, which has more than 60 congregations -- the largest in Minsk, with 1,000 worshippers -- throughout Belarus.

Forum 18 reported last week that a congregation led by Pastor Andrei Sidor has been blocked repeatedly from finding a church home -- in spite of being registered as a recognized religious organization. Local authorities cite sanitary and fire-safety regulations for refusals. When the group finally met in Sidor's home for a two-hour worship service, a court fined Sidor the equivalent of $174, a lot by Belarus standards.

Press-freedom organizations also have been denouncing developments in Belarus, and Lukashenka suggested during last month's voting that the time had come to quit picking on his country.

"For 10 years I have been working and for 10 years you [foreign journalists] have been expressing concern about something in Belarus. I think it is about time for you to relax and to stop reproaching us about some sort of falsifications or violations [with elections]," Lukashenka said.

Diana Orlova is an analyst covering Europe for the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI), which describes itself as a global network of editors, media executives, and leading journalists. "There've been many press freedom violations, many attacks on journalists," she said. "I don't want to say [Belarus] is a good country to pick on but, there's been a reason to pick on it."

IPI Director Johann P. Fritz sent several letters recently to Lukashenka expressing alarm at developments. The latest concerns the case of journalist Veronika Cherkasova of the independent newspaper "Solidarnost." She was stabbed to death nearly three weeks ago. Her body was found in her Minsk apartment with almost 20 knife wounds.

As is almost invariably the case with journalist murders in Belarus, a police investigation failed to turn up any suspect. In his letter, Fritz said that Cherkasova was the fifth journalist to be attacked in the week of the election.

In her case, however, the attack appeared to be unconnected with politics. IPI says that she was involved at the time of her death in collecting material for an article on the work of religious sects in Belarus.

IPI analyst Orlova told RFE/RL: "It is a serious situation. It has been for the last couple of years. I mean if you compare it in the region, you know, in Europe, Belarus is definitely one of the worst places to be a journalist."

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