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Ukraine: Authorities Wrestling With A First -- Asylum Seekers

Ukraine's human-rights record has been widely criticized by international monitoring groups and Western governments. Three Belarusians, however, have applied for political asylum in Ukraine, claiming persecution in their homeland. Authorities in Kyiv, unaccustomed to such requests, appear confused about how to deal with the asylum seekers.

Prague, 9 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Ukrainian government is trying to figure out what to do with three Belarusians who have requested political asylum.

Ukraine has been in the news in the past few years for human-rights breaches, the alleged murders of journalists, and its neglect of democratic standards. In response, a number of Ukrainians have sought to escape by requesting political asylum in Western countries.

But three Belarusians who surfaced on 6 August in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, believe things are worse in Belarus. Volodymyr Bukhanov, Svyatoslav Shapovalov and Sergiy Kornyev say they are history teachers from the Belarusian city of Homel who have been persecuted by Belarusian authorities for their political opposition to the government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Belarusian opposition groups abroad say that none of the men is a prominent dissident. The three men admit they are not part of any organized Belarusian opposition activity but have acted individually against the government. "We published our own leaflets using our own money and engaged in publicity work by various other means," Bukhanov said.

The three say they were often summoned for questioning by Belarusian authorities and subjected to intimidation and beatings. They have not said how they arrived in Ukraine, although the border between the two countries is easy to cross. Belarusians do not need visas to enter Ukraine.

Opponents of Lukashenka's government have previously used Ukraine as a stepping stone to political asylum elsewhere. Bukhanov explained why the three chose Ukraine itself as the country in which to seek refuge. "For us, Ukraine, at this time, is close. And after all, the Ukrainian nation is a fraternal nation for us," Bukhanov said.

But the fact that no on has apparently asked for political asylum in Ukraine before appears to be causing confusion among Ukrainian bureaucrats.

Valentyna Subotenko works in the Citizenship Department of the Ukrainian presidential administration. She seemed unclear about regulations concerning applications for political asylum.

In a statement, Subotenko said there is "no institution of political asylum in Ukraine," and that there is no record of political asylum ever being granted in Ukraine. She went on to say that foreigners and stateless persons may be granted asylum in accordance with the Ukrainian Constitution at the president's discretion. She said Ukraine must refer to European conventions it has signed concerning refugees.

The three men are being allowed to remain in Ukraine while the authorities decide what to do with them. Bukhanov said they have asked the presidential administration for political asylum, but that he can't predict their eventual fate. "We went to the office within the [Ukrainian] presidential administration to the person responsible for receiving people with requests, Vladimir Dmitrievich Tolkachevskyy, who told us the government could deport us and return us to Belarus," Bukhanov said.

But the deputy chief of the presidential administration's Citizenship Department, Serhiy Brytchenko, denies that the three men have even asked for political asylum. "At this time, the office of the presidential administration has not received any documents concerning this matter," Brytchenko said.

Brytchenko acknowledged, however, the existence of a legal mechanism for the men to apply to remain in Ukraine as political refugees. "Ukraine also has a law about refugees and people who feel they are being subjected to political persecution. They can seek refugee status from [Kyiv's]) service for immigration matters," Brytchenko said.

The three men have been sleeping in tents in Kyiv that belong to hundreds of Ukrainian coal miners who are in the capital to protest their low pay and dangerous working conditions. Nearly 200 Ukrainian miners have died in accidents so far this year.

The three Belarusians told Ukrainian media that men, believed to be Ukrainian officials, warned the miners that electricity being provided to their tents will be cut off if they continue to let the asylum seekers stay in their camp.

The Belarusian Embassy in Ukraine has accused the three men of entering Ukraine illegally and says the Belarusian Foreign Ministry is investigating their case.

Belarusian President Lukashenka has often been accused by Western countries and opposition groups of using intimidation and force to suppress dissent. A number of prominent government opponents have disappeared. Opposition groups claim they have been murdered. Lukashenka denies the allegations.

In 1996, Lukashenka extended his rule and broadened his powers through a referendum that Western countries refused to recognize as legitimate. Last September, he was re-elected in another vote that international organizations described as being neither free nor fair.

In its most recent human-rights report in March, the U.S. State Department said Belarus continues to severely limit the right of citizens to change their government. It accused the Lukashenka regime of committing widespread human- and civil-rights violations ahead of last September's presidential vote, including physical mistreatment of opponents, manipulation of the regime-dominated mass media, intimidation of election observers, and manipulation of the vote count.