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Rights Groups Criticize Belarus - 2003-10-12

Human-rights defenders are condemning Belarus for mounting what they say is a deliberate campaign to eliminate all forms of dissent.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE, is sponsoring a major two-week conference in Warsaw on human rights and democracy. One key issue before the delegates is the so-called liquidation of non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, by the courts in Belarus. The debate has coincided with an announcement by Belarus to close two more non-governmental organizations, including a women's advocacy group.

The OSCE, to which Belarus belongs, claims authorities there have closed around a dozen such groups this year, usually for what they describe as petty reasons. Belarus says the groups are not correctly registered, or use different addresses from those given. Belarus authorities have issued a warning to the Union of Poles to stop using the Polish language in letterheads, and they say a second warning could lead to closure.

Human rights defenders say even the use of the Belarusian language is declining and that Russian dominates the nation's television and radio.

Aaron Rhodes, head of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, was in Warsaw this week and observed the OSCE debate on Belarus. He saidd delegates expressed concern that Belarus was not fulfilling its commitment to democracy.

"What it does is that it shows that the Belarus regime is heading in a totalitarian direction, in the same way as formerly totalitarian regimes could not tolerate civil society, even though civil society was not necessarily after any kind of influence or power," Mr. Rhodes said.

Mr. Rhodes reports what he says are other restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, including the closure earlier this year of an opposition newspaper for criticizing Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko.

Washington has expressed concern that President Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, is using Soviet-style methods to govern.

The OSCE continues its human-rights conference next week in the Polish capital.