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US Deplores Closing of Belarus Opposition Newspaper - 2003-05-31

The United States Friday deplored a decision by authorities in Belarus to suspend publication of one of the eastern European country's opposition newspapers, Belaruskaya Delovaya Gazeta.

Belarus officials ordered the newspaper shut down for three months, apparently because it had carried an article critical of the country's President Alexander Lukashenko along with reports on criminal investigations of former officials of state-owned companies.

State Department spokesman Philip Reeker, in a written statement, deplored the government move and called on authorities in Minsk to immediately allow the paper to resume publication, and to "cease their harassment" of the country's opposition press.

Mr. Reeker said there had been government threats to suspend four other independently-owned newspapers and said the closure of Belaruskaya Delovaya Gazeta, which took effect Thursday, was "just the latest step in a campaign to muzzle" the independent media.

U.S. officials have been sharply critical of the authoritarian rule of Mr. Lukashenko, the leader of the former Soviet republic since 1994.

The United States led a successful effort in April to get a resolution critical of Belarus approved by the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva.

But at the same time, it joined 14 member countries of the European Union in rescinding a travel ban against Mr. Lukashenko and top aides. This after his government allowed the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE, to reopen a monitoring office in Minsk that was closed down last October.

In his statement, spokesman Reeker said the Belarus government's latest actions against the media directly contradict Mr. Lukashenko's stated desire to improve relations with the United States and the European Union.

He said continuing restrictions on fundamental freedoms in Belarus are in clear contradiction of internationally-accepted democratic standards.

Thursday's newspaper closure has also been condemned by the media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders and by the OSCE mission in Minsk.