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US Concerned About Belarus Human Rights

Washington, May 10 (RFE/RL) - The United States has expressed strong concern about continuing human rights violations in Belarus.

U.S. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said Thursday that Washington has, in his words "repeatedly raised the issue of human rights violations in Belarus with officials of the Belarusian government both here in Minsk and with officials of the Belarusian embassy in Washington."

He says the latest communication was over the imprisonment of opposition leader Yury Khadyka and that the U.S. has raised his case several times since Khadyka was arrested on April 26th.

Khadyka, deputy leader of the rightist Popular Front, went on hunger strike two days after his arrest. He was formally charged this week with organizing an anti-government march and disturbing public order. If convicted Khadyka, could be jailed for up to three years.

The march was called to mark the 10th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. It ended in a violent clash with police. Some 50 people were injured and 200 demonstrators arrested.

Earlier in April, opposition forces held another anti-government rally to protest president Alyaksandr Lukashenka's policy renewing integration with Russia.

Burns said the U.S. has expressed "strong concern over the government's handling of the recent demonstrations in Minsk, of its detention of Yury Khadyka and others involved in the protests."

He rejected allegations made in a Washington Post newspaper commentary Thursday that the U.S. government is keeping silent about repression in Belarus because it is acquiescing in Russia's desire to reestablish the old Soviet Union and encouraging Lukashenka to forge closer ties with Russia.

Burns said unequivocally that "in no way, shape or form, has the United States agreed or encouraged Belarus to seek any kind of a union with Russia."

He says the U.S. looks on the breakup of the Soviet Union as, in his words: "a very good thing and positive to see one country break into 15. And we prefer to see it remain that way."

Burns said U.S. relations with Belarus are troubled over human rights issues and what he called "the outrageous shootdown of American ballonists."

Last September, two Americans participating in a balloon race were killed when they were shot out of the sky by the Belarus airforce and four others were briefly detained and mistreated by the authorities. The U.S. protested the incident but never received a proper apology and acknowlegement of responsibility from Minsk.

"We've had some problems with the government of Belarus," Burns said, adding that the U.S. is always forthright with the Minsk government about its concerns.

He noted that Belarus was severely criticized in the latest global human rights report, compiled by the United State annually.

The report said Belarus violates international human rights standards in virtually every category, that Lukashenka is steadily amassing power, refuses to work with parliament and uses the interior ministry and KDB forces against his opposition.

Burns pointed out that the annual report also criticizes the Belarusian government for restrictions imposed on freedom of assembly, actions against free trade unions and crackdowns on the press.

The report says, among other things, that the government of Belarus maintains a virtual monopoly over the press and that its overall human rights performance continues to worsen.