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Belarus: Independent Voices Struggle To Be Heard In Provinces

Human rights activists and independent journalists face difficult times in Belarus. Those who try to carry out their work far away from the capital Minsk face an even bigger challenge. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten reports from the eastern city of Mahileu.

Mahileu, Belarus; 12 June 2001 (RFE/RL -- In an authoritarian regime, civil society is under constant pressure. The state seeks to maintain direct control over its citizens and the authorities do not take kindly to independent voices, especially information providers, whom they cannot control.

Independent journalists and human rights advocates based in the Belarus capital Minsk face no shortage of government harassment, but their travails are often reported in the Western press and cited by foreign officials. Outside the capital, however, failure to cooperate with the authorities is punished more severely. In such places -- far from the media spotlight and with little open public support -- it takes a double dose of courage to work.

Sergei Abadovsky, a human rights activist, and Igor Irkho, a journalist, both live and work in Mahileu (in Russian: Mogilev) -- a regional center of roughly 350,000 people, some 200 km east of Minsk. Abadovsky describes the contrast with the capital:

"Minsk was always politicized -- in the capital and the big cities, people are always politicized, for many reasons. In Mahileu and regional centers, political awareness is lower and people are less active. In local population centers, it's even less and in the villages, the authorities have a free hand. It's a simple hierarchy: the smaller the population center, the greater the lack of legal controls on local authorities."

The region of Mahileu is the birthplace of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and the authorities have put special effort into ensuring citizens' loyalty here. This effort has not translated into additional investment or economic benefits, as witnessed by the crumbling building facades and rutted streets. Rather, it has meant more state controls in the form of extra police, extra state newspapers, more local state radio stations, and an even greater state bureaucracy than in other regions.

Abadovsky heads the Mahileu Human Rights Defense Center and is also deputy director of the local chapter of the Helsinki Committee. He has experienced directly the heavy hand of the authorities. Two years ago, after several Belarusian opposition parties held what they described as "alternative elections," to mark the expiration of President Lukashenka's official term of office, Abadovsky's son was arrested by the police.

"After the election, around 10 July, my son was charged, first with rape. After it became clear they wouldn't be able to prove this, they also accused him of two thefts."

After 23 months of incarceration, his son's trial began earlier this month:

"The first day demonstrated that a decision on the outcome had already been made, because the judge suddenly closed the proceedings, even though according to the law she only had the right to close the part of the trial where the rape charge was to be discussed."

Abadovsky, as an attorney, has been serving as his son's lawyer. But even though he is confident in his own abilities and certain of his son's innocence, he does not expect justice to be served. The authorities, he believes, want to send him a message:

"It's not my son they're after -- he's just a really useful tool. They need to discredit me as a human rights activist, as one of the leaders of Mahileu's human rights organizations. I've been a human rights advocate since 1991 and the authorities are really tired of me. So the message from the authorities is clear."

Abadovsky says that except for a couple of friends, few people have openly voiced support for him and his son:

"Fear has penetrated people to such a degree that most of them are afraid to demonstrate in public -- they're afraid of persecution."

Abadovsky's other son has fled to Poland, where he has been granted political asylum. But even for those who do not identify themselves as part of the political opposition, life has not been any easier. Igor Irkho is founder of the independent local newspaper "De Facto":

"We don't consider ourselves to be the opposition. We have always striven to present different points of view and different opinions on events, as much as we can. But this very independence, in our current Belarusian reality, is seen as opposition."

Irkho enumerates the difficulties he and his staff face in trying to put out their newspaper:

"Of course, we have trouble obtaining information. Of course, we also have difficulty renting an office. We are faced with unfair competition because our competitors -- state newspapers -- are given all sorts of advantages and aid and paper. They don't have to think about selling advertising or attracting readers. They just go to the city administration and receive everything they need with little effort."

In recent months, the staff of "De Facto" has been evicted from its offices several times under various pretexts.

"We had problems with the tax police. They audited us six times in two years. During their last check, they found a mistake allegedly made by the company renting us our previous office -- the Dnepr Hotel. And for that mistake, they decided to fine us, for some reason. After two months, they blocked our bank account. While we got our appeal ready, the money was taken out. We couldn't pay our rent and one day, our landlord told us: 'Boys, you haven't been paying for a while -- so out you go on the street.'"

When Irkho and his colleagues moved into their next premises, most of their computers were stolen. The machines that remained were vandalized. Although it cannot be proven, Irkho says he has no doubt all of these actions amount to a well-coordinated policy of state harassment, especially ahead of September's presidential poll:

"Naturally, in the state machine there are certain departments and people whose job it is to prevent us from working normally, well, and peacefully."

Given these circumstances, the fact that Irkho manages to publish "De Facto" on a regular basis could be considered a minor miracle. And in Mahileu, miracles of any size are few and far between -- although some residents joke in private that they may soon witness another one, when President Lukashenka is returned to office with overwhelming popular support.