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Watch List: March 18, 1999

18 March 1999, Volume 1, Number 10

JAILED UZBEK OPPOSITIONISTS AT RISK... Amnesty International is calling for urgent action to save human rights activist and Birlik Party leader Akhmadkhon Turakhanov, 59, detained in an Uzbek jail since December 1998 and deprived of contacts with his family and lawyer. He is said to have collapsed in court on March 5, toward the end of his trial. Charged with attempting to overthrow constitutional order, he was sentenced to six years' imprisonment. AI is concerned that in the climate of repression following the bomb explosions in Tashkent on February 16, Turakhanov did not receive a fair trial. And it is disturbed that he is not receiving treatment for his diabetes. AI has also raised concerns about the safety of human rights activist Mukhtabar Akhmedova, popular writer Mamadali Makhmudov, and Munira Nasriddinova, wife of an opposition leader, all of whom are now in detention. According to Abdumannob Polat, chair of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan and now resident in Washington, before the bombings the government held 161 possible political prisoners, most of them on what he said were fabricated charges such as possession of narcotics and weapons. Polat charges that President Islam Karimov is using the "highly inflated specter of Islamic extremism to justify its denial of multiparty democracy, openness, and freedom of expression." Since the bombings, Polat told RFE/RL, unconfirmed reports suggest at least 200 more arrests.

...AND REPORTERS HARASSED. Uzbek authorities have harassed two RFE/RL stringers in recent weeks. State-run television condemned as "a traitor" Nosir Zokir for his reporting on the Tashkent explosions, and state officials visited Tolkin Karayev in his home and place of work, questioning him about his part-time work for the radios.

JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES RAIDED IN KAZAKHSTAN. Between March 9 and 13, the Kazakhstan procuracy staged surprise raids on six Jehovah Witness communities in the country, according to the Keston News Service. The ostensible purpose was to check the legality of community activities. In Taraz, Keston says, the local procurator flanked by a security police officer demanded to see minutes of religious meetings and correspondence between Witness communities and headquarters. In other locations, officials summoned community members and ordered them to write statements on Witness attitudes toward medical treatment and military service.

BEIJING RAZES MUSLIM QUARTER. Beijing authorities began razing the Uighur Muslim enclave known as Xinjiang Village on 16 March, a step which may aggravate tensions between the Han majority and the Uighurs, according to the "Los Angeles Times." The police "chased off" foreign journalists. The paper called the demolition part of "a wider effort to expel more than a third of the city's 3-million-plus migrant workers within the next few years." The officials' attitude is to demolish first and discuss compensation later, a restaurant-owner, one of 30 who "scrambled to salvage" their possessions, told the "Los Angeles Times." Speaking at the annual session of the National People's Congress, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji acknowledged flaws in his government's human rights record but declared that it "improves every day."

ROMA SUE SLOVAK TOWNS IN EUROPEAN RIGHTS COURT. The Budapest-based European Roma Rights Center has applied at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg for permission to file a suit against two townships in Slovakia that bar Roma. In 1997 Nagov and Rokytovce adopted ordinances which threaten to expel any Roma who enters their jurisdictions. The threats followed the expulsion of seven Romany families in 1989 and unsuccessful legal challenges in the 1990s to allow Roma to live in Medzilaborce County, which includes the two towns.

WAFFEN SS VETERANS MARCH IN LATVIA; SOLDIERS' DAY TO CHANGE. Approximately 300 Latvian Waffen SS veterans marched through Riga on March 16, the anniversary of their unit fighting the Red Army for the first time in 1943, RFE/RL's Latvian Service reported. Last summer, the Latvian parliament had declared that date, long marked unofficially, as an official holiday to be called "Soldiers' Day." The Russian Foreign Ministry protested the march for dishonoring the memory of victims of Nazism. Prime Minister Vilis Kristopans announced that the date marked as "Soldiers' Day" is "inappropriate" and will be changed to November 11.

BELARUS OPPOSITION LEADER BRUTALIZED. Viktar Hanchar, head of the opposition Central Electoral Committee, was released from jail on March 11 after serving ten days for "misappropriation of official authority." Hanchar told Human Rights Watch that he had been seriously mistreated while incarcerated. Neither his wife nor his lawyer had been permitted to visit him. After staging a hunger strike for five days, he was force fed while loud music played, apparently to drown out his screams. When he refused to sign a statement promising not to leave the country while the investigation against him proceeds, he was first put in a tiny cell known as "a stone sack" for two hours and then trundled into a car and driven around Minsk for another two hours. Finally officers of the KGB dumped him in the snow about a mile from his home. Wearing only a jacket in the freezing cold, he walked home and then collapsed. While opposition leaders reacted by issuing protest statements, they were angered by the silence of the OSCE's Advisory and Monitoring Group (AMG) in Minsk. According to Reuters, AMG was denied access to Hanchar in jail, even though in a 1997 accord Belarus granted AMG unimpeded access to "all institutions and persons."


By Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Belarus is the post-Soviet story everybody was hoping wouldn't happen. Much of the reason for that unfortunate development is that it has become a country of proxies. For the United States, Belarus is a proxy for frustrations at the slow pace of post cold-war reform, a country Washington can criticize for abuses it is reluctant to criticize forcefully in other post-communist countries.

For its neighbors, Poland and Lithuania, their tacit support for the Belarusian opposition serves as a proxy for a tough policy and as a cost-free demonstration for their commitment to Western values. And for Russia, Belarus serves as a proxy for Soviet-style behavior Moscow has not renounced and for expressions of aspirations for Slavic unity.

But most Belarusians do not have the luxury of living by proxy. Their lives are all too real, including waiting in line for what some call "proxy eggs." These eggs have disappeared from the shelves because they were shipped to feed the Russian military in payment for Belarus' Gazprom debt -- or so the grumblers in the long lines complain.

If the Belarusian people can't live by proxy, the Belarusian opposition sometimes has been forced to precisely because of the way many outsiders have played this game. Unable to gain mass support because of their lack of access to media and persistent Soviet-style attitudes of accepting whoever is in power, the opposition there has seen its ranks repeatedly reduced by the hundreds as a result of 10-day jail sentences for participation in peaceful demonstrations. Activists have been forced into temporary or permanent exile or internal emigration for fear of retaliation against relatives.

Despite all this, there are some encouraging signs: young people are joining the opposition in greater numbers, the small but feisty independent press continues to operate, Charter 97, a protest group styled on the one in Czechoslovakia, has garnered 100,000 signatures, and workers have gone into the streets by the thousands.

But because support for these activities has waned as outsiders engage in their proxy campaigns, these new infusions may not arrive soon enough to prevent more disasters.

And as a result, some leaders of the Belarusian opposition hope to be able to wage their terribly real struggle by proxy as well, all the while retaining their belief that "the West" will step in and stand up to the bullies, carve out a space where the opposition can breathe, and sustain it morally and financially. So far, however, the opposition has been disappointed, and its disappointments have turned into anger, as demonstrated in the case of Viktar Hanchar. He heads the opposition Central Electoral Commission, appointed by a democratic parliament, which questioned Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's fraudulent referendum in 1996, and was therefore closed down by leather-jacketed thugs. Since then, Hanchar and his colleagues in the 13th Supreme Soviet -- the democratically-elected parliament also suppressed by Lukashenka -- have been struggling valiantly but in vain to restore the basic institutions of democracy.

This problem has been compounded by Germany's new role. Ambassador Hans-Georg Wieck of Germany, head of the OSCE mission in Minsk, has called for a compromise in Belarus. The Germans have now rotated into the chair of the European Union, and lead the European chorus, always mindful of Russia's wrath, to keep the Belarus problem as a "dialogue" inside OSCE. Such a quid pro quo would allow Lukashenka to stay in office until 2001 without facing the elections mandated under the 1994 constitution he abrogated. And objections by several other German political figures -- such as Erika Schroedter, a Green member of the German parliament who serves as a delegate to the OSCE -- give some hope that Bonn may change its position eventually.

Jacobo Timmerman, the Argentine writer and himself a former political prisoner, once said, "Quiet diplomacy is quiet. Silent diplomacy is surrender." When European institutions called upon to defend human rights vigorously refuse to stand up to bullies, they will ultimately suffer as well. The proxy war in Belarus is raging largely out of sight of the world, and rather than understanding it as a fight about human rights and democracy, key Western figures have reduced it to a political quarrel about a constitution that needs "compromise, dialogue, and mediation." By relativizing the underlying human rights disaster that preceded the current impasse, OSCE and the European Parliament have betrayed the Helsinki principles. "There cannot be a dialogue from prison," noted Boris Gyunter, one of the Belarusian opposition leaders who was recently sent to jail.

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick is executive director of the International League for Human Rights.