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Belarus: Opposition Ready For Next Demonstration

International bodies have condemned the violence used by Belarusian police to break up an opposition demonstration in the capital Minsk over the weekend. Opposition leaders say the demonstrations will continue. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports.

Prague, 29 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Belarusian opposition is already preparing for its next demonstration, undeterred by the aggressive tactics used by police against demonstrators last Saturday (March 25) in Minsk.

International reaction has condemned the crackdown. On Monday (March 27) U.S. State Department spokesman James Foley called the Belarus authorities' use of force "brutal" and "unjustified." Earlier Hans-Peter Kleiner, the deputy head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, mission in Minsk said that police had overreacted in their use of force during the demonstration.

On Saturday afternoon, some 7, 000 opposition demonstrators were attacked by police and Interior Ministry troops. Wielding batons and backed up by armored cars, they arrested around 500 people, including an OSCE observer, a member of the Polish parliament, and 35 Belarusian and foreign journalists. Some television crews had their equipment damaged.

Many of those detained later complained they had been beaten, and numerous witnesses saw security forces beating demonstrators. Most of the detained were freed within hours, but an unconfirmed number face court appearances on charges varying from disturbing public order to sedition.

RFE/RL's Belarus Service reports that only one person's case has been dealt with so far. Mykoliav Aless, an 18-year-old student, was yesterday sentenced to five days in jail after being found guilty of public disorder.

But reports from the court said that, because police witnesses failed to turn up or gave contradictory evidence, other cases have been postponed. One postponed case is that of RFE/RL reporter Aleh Hruzdilovich, due to stand trial on Friday.

The Belarusian Association of Journalists said that Hruzdilovich was beaten while in detention and has been charged with sedition.

Belarusian Interior Minister Yuri Sivakov acknowledged yesterday that the detention of the journalists is unlawful. But he said it is a result of the tense situation and that interior ministry troops were provoked.

OSCE representative Kleiner said that his mission protested after its observer, Christopher Panico, was detained by police for two hours at the beginning of the demonstration -- even though Panico showed his diplomatic identification card. Kleiner:

"The problem that he was arrested is not in itself dramatic, they arrested people at random. The problem is that they did not respect his diplomatic card and release him immediately."

The OSCE is in Belarus to monitor political life in the run-up to parliamentary elections due in October. It is also seeking to encourage a dialogue between Belarus's authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and the opposition. That has so far proved impossible.

The reaction of Belarusian authorities Saturday was in stark contrast to the peaceful manner of the previous opposition demonstration, on March 15. Saturday's demonstration was held to mark a short-lived but symbolically important 1918 declaration of Belarus independence.

Vyacheslav Sivchik, deputy chairman of the Belarus Popular Front -- the chief opposition group -- said that the violence showed that the government is becoming what he described as "terribly afraid" of the opposition. Twice this month, Sivchik pointed out, the opposition has showed it can bring thousands of people out in protest.

Another prominent opposition figure, Liavon Barshevsky, linked the violence displayed by authorities on Saturday to the Russian presidential election that took place the next day. He said that a demonstration for Belarusian independence was frowned on by the government because Vladimir Putin, who won Sunday's Russian election, was identified with the union treaty between Russia and Belarus.

Barshevsky said that the authorities deliberately used rough methods and arrested many protestors because they wanted to intimidate people from taking part in future demonstrations:

"There was no need to bring armored cars onto the streets because they are useless in a situation when our people have no weapons, no guns. It was a demonstration of force."

Barshevsky said he thinks opposition supporters will not be intimidated and that he expects even more people to turn out for the next demonstration, on April 26, than came to the March 15 protest, which attracted some 20,000 people. The April demonstration will commemorate the anniversary of the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear disaster, whose fallout was strongly felt in Belarus.

For Barshevsky -- but not for other opposition leaders -- Saturday's violence effectively brought to an end any prospects for a real dialogue between the government and opposition, as was proposed last year by the OSCE. One of the chief aims of the dialogue was to try to ensure that the opposition would have a fair chance in parliamentary elections in October. Barshevsky says that's not possible any longer:

"I think the dialogue stopped what was proposed by European structures [that is, the OSCE] and if the authorities at a high level will not apologize for what they did on this day there will be no real dialogue. And probably people in the West can see that no fair elections are possible in Belarus."

Barshevsky called Saturday's protest a turning point for the opposition movement. He said opposition members must now decide what to do to ensure that the government does not use even greater brute force as a means of repression.