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Belarus Election Being Watched Closely By Human Rights Groups, Others - 2001-08-31

Belarus holds presidential elections September 9 amid international criticism of the conduct of the campaign. Foreign observers, human rights groups and governments, including the United States, are charging the Belarus government with a crackdown on the opposition media and persecution of political opponents

Belarus President Aleksander Lukashenko is running for another term on September 9. His chief rival is opposition leader Vladimir Goncharik. International observers, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, have sent teams to monitor the electoral process. OSCE team leader Hrair Balian says there has been evidence of human rights violations during the electoral campaign.

"We can note several things that are of concern to us. One is we have documented so far some 20 incidents of harassment and human rights violations involving the opposition or independent media, ranging from seizure of computers, theft of computers and only hard discs are missing seizure of print material, arrest of journalists, tax inspections, repeated tax inspections," he said. "This is obviously of very serious concern for us and has at the very least a chilling effect on the campaign environment."

Mr. Balian also notes the lack of campaign posters, large rallies and debates that are common to elections elsewhere in the world.

Ambassador Valery Tsepkalo, who represents Belarus in Washington, describes what he calls the friction between the government and the opposition as part of the political process.

"There is a political process in Belarus and nobody can deny that," he said. "Well, there are so many countries where you do not see any political process. And all the clashes with independent media or opposition and so on only prove the idea that there is a political process."

Washington has sharply criticized Belarus for seizing a special edition of an opposition newspaper and for closing down a printing house used by independent media.

Ambassador Tsepkalo calls U.S. criticism of the electoral process interference in domestic matters.

Washington also has raised concern over allegations the Lukashenko government is linked to the disappearance of two pro-democracy politicians during the past two years. Ambassador Tspekalo says only his government is investigating the matter.