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Belarus: Taxi Drivers' Hunger Strike Continues

Autukhovich (far left) was fined nearly $1 million Prague, 8 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The manager of a small taxi company in Vaukavysk, Hrodna Oblast, entered the 25th day of a hunger strike on 8 April.

Some 40 other people, including taxi drivers employed by Autukhovich, have subsequently joined his strike.

Mikalay Autukhovich is conducting the strike to contest the local authorities' demand that he pay a fine of some 2.1 billion Belarusian rubles (nearly $1 million) for allegedly not possessing a license to provide taxi services and not paying taxes, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported.

Autukhovich has had problems with local tax inspectors for several years. He previously went on hunger strike in October 2003, when the Vaukavysk authorities seized a dozen of his taxis, accusing him of tax evasion. This time he is charged, in addition to tax evasion, of employing taxi drivers from a firm that does not possess a license to provide taxi services. The case has its legal intricacies.

According to a presidential decree on private entrepreneurship, a single entrepreneur has the right to employ no more than three workers. Autukhovich, who has a license to provide taxi services, actually employs 22 drivers. To avoid violating the said decree, he leases 19 drivers under an agreement from the Vaukavysk-based Nikotrans firm owned by his wife. This firm is not licensed for taxi services. While lawyers have said that Autukhovich's business scheme is flawless from a legal point of view, local authorities think otherwise.

Doctor Iosif Kharuk, who examined Autukhovich on 7 April, told RFE/RL that Autukhovich's condition is serious -- due to the hunger strike, the temperature of his body has fallen to 35.7 degrees Celsius, and his blood pressure has significantly lowered. According to the doctor, there is a threat that in the coming days the hunger strike may impair the functions of Autukhovich's liver, kidney, and brain.

Autukhovich, who is an Afghan war veteran, has been joined in his protest not only by his employees but also former brothers-in-arms from the Afghan war who are not related to his business activity.