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Belarus: 'Prisoner Of Conscience' Remembered On Human Rights Day

Human rights experts call them "prisoners of conscience." Hundreds of them around the world are forced to live in deplorable conditions in jail cells and prison camps. Many are anonymous and largely forgotten. But others remain in the public eye because rights groups refuse to look away. RFE/RL took the case of a well-known "prisoner of conscience" ahead of the United Nations' International Human Rights Day.

9 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The music of British rock group The Cure has charmed listeners since the late 1970s. But last summer, the band turned its distinctive sound to a different purpose.

Along with Leningrad -- a rock band from St. Petersburg, Russia -- The Cure has taken up the cause of Belarusian scientist Yuriy Bandazhevskiy.

Bandazhevskiy has languished for five years in prisons in and near the capital, Minsk. The authorities say he's there because he accepted bribes from students seeking entry into the Gomel Medical Institute, where he was rector.

His supporters, including the Belarus Helsinki Committee and Amnesty International, say he is behind bars for a different reason. They say it's because Bandazhevsky has told the world that thousands of children and adults in Belarus are still getting sick -- and dying -- from exposure to the ongoing radiation fallout from the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear disaster in neighboring Ukraine.

A number of international agencies have been calling for his release since the prison gates closed behind him in 1999. Now, as the United Nations observes International Human Rights Day tomorrow, Bandazhevsky's name is in the news again.

Sergei Nikitin, director of Amnesty International in Moscow, thanks The Cure and other rock groups for the fresh publicity about the case.

"The reason why his name was in the news lately both in Belarus and Russia was that several musicians quite famous signed petitions -- including the English rock group The Cure -- signed petitions which were sent to the president of Belarus asking him to release Bandazhevsky," Nikitin said.

When a Soviet-built nuclear reactor melted down in Chornobyl in April 1986, radiation contaminated almost a quarter of Belarus. Soviet authorities tried unsuccessfully to cover up the disaster as it reflected badly on their rule.

Rights groups say the government of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has sought to do the same with Bandazhevsky's research, which showed that more than 1.5 million people still live within the contaminated territories of Belarus.

And when his research began churning out evidence that thousands of unexpected deaths, birth defects, involuntarily aborted fetuses, and diseases were traceable to the aftermath of Chornobyl -- and to official neglect of remedial measures -- authorities were even further displeased.

A police detachment picked up Bandazhevsky at Gomel in the middle of the night of 13 July 1999. They cited emergency measures against terrorism. When prosecutors charged him almost a month later, they accused him of accepting bribes. That's the charge on which a court then convicted him and sentenced him to eight years' imprisonment.

Amnesty's Nikitin says that international efforts to publicize Bandazhevsky's case and win his release have become more pressing in recent months, as the scientist's health has deteriorated severely. Nikitin says he has no reason to believe that the release pleas will be heeded, but he keeps on hoping anyway.

"We haven't heard from the Belarusian authorities so far. But being an optimist, I do believe that every effort is worth a try and the more we attract people's attention to the fact that there are prisoners of conscience in Belarus, the more it helps those prisoners. And I'm very glad that several Belarus newspapers printed this information on their pages. Therefore, people in the country, in Belarus, they know about this," Nikitin said.

But can such publicity actually win the release of "prisoners of conscience?"

Heather McGill is Amnesty International's Belarus researcher in London.

"We do have experience of working for long-term prisoners of conscience like this. It's very hard for us to say when something positive happens whether that is due in fact to Amnesty International's efforts. But we do believe that by keeping such cases on the agenda, by reminding people about them, by publicizing them, by not allowing them to be forgotten -- that's the main thing -- that we can make progress. We hope to make progress. We don't always [make progress], but we believe that that's one method," McGill said.