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Belarus: U.S. Decries 'Political Repression'

The United States has renewed its criticism of the actions of the Belarusian government. The State Department says there is political repression in Belarus underscored by the disappearance of political activists opposed to the regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Our correspondent Frank T. Csongos reports.

Washington, 19 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. government says a climate of political repression exists in Belarus to silence opposition figures.

State Department spokesman Philip Reeker told reporters on 18 July that this milieu is highlighted by what he called credible reports implicating Belarus government officials in the disappearance of political activists opposed to Belarus leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Reeker said:

"The United States remains greatly concerned by a series of politically motivated disappearances in Belarus and the climate of political repression imposed by the Lukashenka regime. Four prominent individuals all opposed to the Lukashenka regime have disappeared since 1999. To date, Belarusian authorities have not provided any accounting of the whereabouts of these individuals."

The four are former Interior Minister Yury Zakharenka, former Belarus parliamentarian Viktar Hanchar, his colleague Anatol Krasouski, and television journalist Dzmitry Zavadski.

Reeker noted that the four -- all opposed to the Lukashenka regime -- have been missing since 1999. He said:

"Credible reports and the publication of documents 17 July in Minsk implicate senior Lukashenka regime officials in these disappearances. Two prosecutor's office investigators from Belarus claim that a death squad created by the Lukashenka regime was responsible for all four of the disappearances of the opposition figures. So the United States takes these allegations very seriously and calls on the Belarusian authorities to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation."

Lukashenka has denied earlier charges concerning the existence of a death squad. Lukashenka said in Minsk that Washington should "mind its own business." He said the allegations were a provocation meant to undermine him ahead of the 9 September presidential election.

Earlier this week, Belarus union leader and presidential candidate Uladzimir Hancharyk said he had documents suggesting law-enforcement officials had played a role in the murders of several opposition leaders.

Reeker made it clear that the United States will keep a close watch on Belarus.

"We're going to continue to follow this. We're going to continue to press for investigation to get to the bottom of this. As I said and indicated, the allegations are certainly (credible) -- there's a lot of information that has been released, credible information that we find to implicate senior Lukashenka regime officials in these disappearances."

Asked by a reporter to elaborate on the death squad allegation, Reeker said:

"That's based on what has been claimed by two investigators from the prosecutor's office in Belarus. Those two investigators claim that a death squad was created by the Lukashenka regime, was responsible for all four of the disappearances. And we do take those allegations very seriously and, as I said, call on the Belarusian authorities to conduct a thorough investigation."

Critics say Lukashenka has ruled Belarus in an increasingly authoritarian manner since assuming power in 1994. In 1996, he extended his term in office and dissolved an opposition-led parliament. The U.S. government and the European Union have been a persistent critics of the Lukashenka regime.

Also on 18 July, a group women, wives of Belarus opposition figures -- including the widow of the 13th Supreme Soviet Deputy Chairman Gennady Karpenko who died under mysterious circumstances in 1999 -- held a news conference at the Washington offices of RFE/RL.

Lyudmilla Karpenko told the briefing that the upcoming elections in Belarus are crucial. She said:

"The future of ourselves and the future of our children will depend on the outcome of the presidential ballot on 9 September. If Lukashenka remains in power after the elections, our country will continue to live in an atmosphere of fear, bitterness, and poverty."

The women said they were in Washington to advance the cause of democracy in their country and to call attention to the human rights abuses of the current regime. State Department spokesman Reeker said they expressed their concerns in meetings with U.S. officials. (RFE/RL's Gabriela Pecic contributed to this report)