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Belarus Crackdown

Relatives and friends are worried about Zmitser Dashkevich's health, which they say has been deteriorating in recent months. His fiancee has not seen him since April 2011.
Concern is mounting over the well-being of jailed opposition figures in Belarus amid reports of prison abuse, including threats of torture, rape, and murder.

Human rights campaigners in Belarus and abroad are calling on Minsk to end what they describe as the mistreatment and intimidation of inmates held on politically motivated charges, in particular opposition figures Zmitser Dashkevich and Ales Byalyatski.

"The situation with political prisoners has been quite dire. People held on politically motivated charges have been singled out in detention," says Human Rights Watch's Yulia Gorbunova.

Human Rights Watch accused Belarusian authorities on October 2 of "retaliating against their critics even after they are thrown in jail" and urged Belarus to immediately investigate all instances of mistreatment.

The global rights group says ill-treatment of political detainees appears to be on the rise in Belarus, with inmates increasingly facing verbal abuse, unfair punishments, and psychological pressure.

Gorbunova says Dashkevich has also been subjected to alarming threats from prison staff, including "threats of rape by other inmates and of physical violence, up to murder. He's also subjected to verbal abuse and he's facing a lot of arbitrary punishment, including restriction on meetings with his relatives."

Platform, a Belarusian rights group monitoring the treatment of prisoners, sounded the alarm last week by filing a complaint to the United Nations' special rapporteur on torture.

Increasing Pressure

Rights groups have denounced a rollback on freedom since the reelection of authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in December 2010.

The election sparked massive street protests that led to the arrest of almost 700 people and the sentencing of dozens of protesters to jail terms.

Rights groups accuse Belarusian authorities of intensifying their crackdown on dissent over the past two years, detaining opposition activists, disbarring lawyers who defend detainees and intimidating rights campaigners and journalists.

Ales Byalyatski has been barred from seeing his family since May and is constantly punished.
Ales Byalyatski has been barred from seeing his family since May and is constantly punished.
A dozen opposition activists detained during or since the postelection protests still remain in detention.

These include Ales Byalyatski, the head of the Belarusian human rights center Vyasna, sentenced in November 2011 to 4 1/2 years in prison on charges of tax evasion; former presidential candidate Mikalay Statkevich, jailed for six years in May 2011 for "organizing mass disturbances" following Lukashenka's reelection; and Dashkevich, the leader of the youth opposition movement Young Front, convicted to two years in March 2011 for hooliganism after an alleged brawl on the eve of the presidential election.

'Time To Clamp Down'

Dashkevich is barred from family visits and has spent months in an isolated cell. In August, he was sentenced to an additional year in prison on charges of repeatedly disobeying the prison administration.

Relatives and friends are worried about his health, which they say has been deteriorating in recent months.

On September 21, two days after being transferred to a new penal colony in the southwestern city of Mazyr, Dashkevich declared a hunger strike to protest what he said was "inhumane treatment" at the prison.

His fiancee, Nasta Palazhanka, has filed a request asking prosecutors to investigate the alleged abuse by prison authorities in Mazyr.

"As soon as he arrived there, attitudes toward him changed completely. Apparently they decided that it was time to clamp down on him, to further bear down on him. There were constant insults, insults to his dignity, his human dignity," she says.

"In order to put an end to this campaign of harassment, Dzmitser went on a hunger strike. So of course I'm worried about him, because of this hunger strike and this treatment of him in Mazyr, and because of the whole system of pressure that is bearing down on him."

Palazhanka says she has not seen Dashkevich since April 2011.

Constant Punishments

Human Rights Watch says Byalyatski has been barred from seeing his relatives since May. In June, he was declared a "repeated violator" of prison rules, making him ineligible for amnesty.

Activists say Byalyatski is subjected to routine reprimands, including restrictions on his mealtimes and on permissions to receive parcels and visits. Other prisoners are allegedly prohibited from talking to him.

Byalyatski, Dashkevich, Statkevich, and several other Belarusian detainees have been declared prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International.

Written in Prague by Claire Bigg based on reporting by Aleh Hruzdzilovich in Minsk
A soldier leaves a voting booth in Minsk to cast his ballot during early voting for Belarus's parliamentary elections.
Six Belarusian opposition groups have called on voters to boycott this weekend's parliamentary elections in that country.

Leaders of the opposition groups at a joint press conference in Minsk on September 21 denounced the elections as a farce marked by the detention of political activists.

Anatol Lyabedzka, chairman of the United Civic Party, said the September 23 vote -- like previous elections in Belarus -- would be a sham and could as well be cancelled.

"Either we bring real elections of the president and [parliamentary] deputies back to Belarus or it is better to cancel the imitation [of democracy] we have witnessed," Lyabedzka said.

Vital Rymasheuski, co-chairman of Belarusian Christian Democracy, said there can be no free or fair elections while opponents of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka remain in jail as political prisoners.

"The isolation of the main opponents of the regime, who are thus prevented from participation in the election process, is alone enough to consider this election illegal and undemocratic," Rymasheuski said.

Opposition leaders said an election boycott would be a vote of no-confidence in Lukashenka's regime.

The United Civic Party and the Belarusian Popular Front, the two main opposition parties, announced last weekend they had withdrawn their candidates from the election.

Lyabedzka of the United Civic Party has urged voters to "go fishing, or visit your parents" instead of casting a vote.

The vote is expected to elect a rubberstamp parliament, with most powers remaining in the hands of Lukashenka -- who has ruled Belarus since 1994, continuing to crack down on dissent and independent media.

Rights groups say some 15 political prisoners remain jailed out of the dozens arrested during a crackdown on peaceful protests after the 2010 presidential election, when -- according to official results -- Lukashenka won a fourth term.

Amnesty International said the run-up to the voting had been marked by arrests and detention of opposition members.

The head of Belarus's Central Election Commission on September 17 criticized an announcement by the United Civic Union and the Belarusian Popular Front one day earlier to withdraw their candidates from the legislative elections.

Commission Secretary Mikalay Lozovik said the decision showed "disrespect for voters" and represented a "travesty of law."

With additional reporting by Reuters

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