Mistreatment of Opposition Activists and Economic Problems in the Focus of Belarus Press

Mistreatment of political prisoners was the primary focus of non-governmental media in Belarus over the last week. Two former political prisoners of the Belarusian KGB fled Belarus following their release on condition that they would not leave the country. Ales Mikhalevich, a former presidential candidate, is currently in Prague seeking political asylum. Natalia Radzina, editor of the anti-government web site charter97.org, fled Belarus yesterday and is rumoured to be in the United Kingdom.

Ales Mikhalevich has already revealed details of the harsh treatment of detainees which may amount to torture. Following Mikhalevich’s lead other opposition activists started revealing details of beatings, sleep deprivation, and other methods of physical and psychological pressure used by security services. Mikalai Autukhovich sent a letter to the Belarusian service of Radio Liberty giving graphic details of abuses in Belarus prisons. He is still in custody.

Independent press has also discussed the harsh sentences dealt to those convicted for participation in the post-election protests in Belarus. Russian citizens were sentenced to fines while most of Belarusians against whom criminal charges were advanced were sentenced to several years in prison. According to independent news weekly Nasha Niva, there are two groups of detainees – those who decided to testify and those who did not wish to cooperate with the prosecution. The first group has been threatened with sentences up to 3 years and those in the second, if convicted, may spend up to 15 years in jail.

Independent media also reported that in the time following the elections, for more than three months, Belarusian authorities have continued to chase and even beat those who participated in post-election protests. Security services use data from mobile phone providers to locate those who were in the area of the protests that took place on 19 December 2011. It appears impractical to chase and question the more than 50 thousand protestors, though the primary aim of such tactics appears to be directed at discouraging people from protesting again.

Another topic, which has been prominently featured in the Belarusian press lately, is the serious economic difficulties being witnessed by a majority of the population. Today it is virtually impossible for ordinary Belarusians to purchase foreign currency in Belarus. The real value of the Belarusian currency is plummeting and subsequently a growing black market for foreign currency exchange has emerged. Belarus has not seen anything like this since early 1990s. The government imposed restrictions on loans and other transactions with foreign currency, which has increased anxiety amongst Belarusians who are trying to get rid of Belarusian roubles fearing the radical devaluation of the national currency.

The Belarusian-language daily Zvyazda and the news agency Belta, both controlled by the government, has devoted significant attention to the measures taken by the authorities to stabilize the market. Belarus Segodnya, the government-controlled newspaper with the largest circulation in Belarus, does not provide detailed coverage concerning either the serious economic problems or the sentences handed out to opposition activists. Instead, it reports about various meetings, which Alexander Lukashenka had with his ministers, his trips to the countryside and measures to improve management of agricultural sector in Belarus.

The topic of economic sanctions against Belarus and situation in Libya is discussed both in independent and governmental press. While all pro-government sources condemn both the economic sanctions against Belarus and the UN-mandated military operation in Libya, there are more opinions on this topic in independent press. Many opposition politicians call to step up the sanctions because nothing else works. Others are concerned that this will further strengthen the role of Russia in the politics and economy of Belarus, which may prove to be detrimental to the development of democracy in Belarus.

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