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Belarus: Rights Officials Concerned About Newspaper's Closure

By Bogdan Turek and Roland Eggleston

Warsaw, 28 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The United States and the European Union yesterday told a human rights meeting in Warsaw that they were seriously concerned at the decision of the Belarus government to close down the independent newspaper "Svaboda."

Rudolf V. Perina, head of the U.S. delegation to the meeting, said that the closure of the newspaper "is another glaring example of the Belarus government's apparent failure to abide by even the most basic commitments of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)." The Warsaw meeting was organized by the OSCE

Perina also said that "the policies of the government of Belarus in regard to a wide range of OSCE commitments are of very serious concern to my government," adding that "This action by the authorities in Minsk merits condemnation by the entire OSCE community."

Jean Wagner, reading the statement on behalf of the European Union, said the closure of the "Svaboda" should be condemned. "The European Union is concerned by the closure of the newspaper," he said. "The decision is unacceptable and contrary to the principles of a democratic society." Wagner said that the authorities of Belarus should guarantee freedom of the media instead of violating it.

"Svaboda" was the largest independent newspaper in Belarus with a circulation of around 90,000. It was shut down last week (Nov. 24). Belarus authorities said it had previously been given three warnings about publishing anti-government articles. Belarus was a target of international criticism at the OSCE conference from its beginning two weeks ago (Nov. 12) until the final session yesterday. The delegations criticized Belarus for failure to guarantee religious freedom, minority rights and free operation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Turkey was also high on the list of OSCE countries where the delegates said that human rights are violated. Turkish Foreign Ministry official Cinar Aldemir made no reference Thursday to his country's record and complained about persecution of migrant Turkish workers in West European countries. "The rise of racism is of a concern for my government as the citizens of my country are becoming a target of racial attacks," he said. "Racism has become a common place in Europe." The Turkish official said as many as 80 Turks have died as a result of racial excesses and that fact has escaped the notice of the media.

Perina expressed concern in today's speech at the plight of the ethnic Albanian community in Kosovo. He said the in Belgrade demonstrated a "flagrant disregard of OSCE standards" in its actions in Kosovo.

Perina also said that Roma and Sini communities (Gypsies) experience difficulties in some countries. He said their problems "cry out for international attention." Perina did not name any specific countries.

But in general, most delegations agreed that despite many shortcomings, progress was made since the last OSCE implementation meeting in Warsaw two years ago.

Perina concurred, saying that "the process of implementation of OSCE directives in the human dimension is moving forward." He went on to say that "We are making progress, and in some cases even significant progress." Some delegations proposed to change the formula of future implementation meetings so that they would not last for two weeks. Ambassador Gerard Stoudman from the Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights said reforming the meetings might help to advance human rights problems. "If you don't pedal on a bike you fall,' he said. "but if you don't improve the operation, you fall backward." No decisions were taken on the issue, however.

A member of the British delegation said the reports at the conferences tend to become "ritualistic," and a Canadian official called for more focused discussions so that the reports were not redundant. A representative of Malta said that the operation of NGOs and their reports brought life to the OSCE conference, providing most evidence of violations of human rights. The conference's concluding report said that "progress has been achieved" in securing compliance with basic OSCE commitments in regard to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief. "On the other hand, shortcomings were identified," the report said. "There is rise of intolerance caused by various forms of government interference and harassment, particularly towards minority religions."

The reports said participants supported the establishment of an OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. The Representative will be appointed at the OSCE Ministerial Meeting in Copenhagen in December this year. The participants supported the U.S. idea of establishing a permanent international criminal court by the end of this century. The OSCE conference said the participating states should consider ratifying relevant international human rights regulations, including the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the new European Convention on Nationality.