Lukashenko critics blocked from leaving Belarus

Thu, Mar 29, 2012, 01:00

BELARUS IS preventing opponents of authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko from leaving the country, in retaliation for European Union sanctions against his allies.

The leaders of two opposition political parties, Anatoly Lebedko and Sergei Kalyakin, and prominent activist Alexander Otroshchenkov, were yesterday removed from a train travelling from the Belarusian capital Minsk to Moscow, from where they intended to travel on to Brussels.

They were due to meet officials of the EU, which last week froze the assets of 29 Belarusian companies and barred 12 influential supporters of Mr Lukashenko from entering the union. More than 200 of his key allies are now banned from travelling in the EU.

In response, Mr Lukashenko revealed that he had compiled a blacklist of opponents who would no longer be allowed to leave Belarus.

Several critics of Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled his country of 9.5 million people since 1994, have been prevented from travelling abroad in recent weeks, including the first post-Soviet leader of Belarus, Stanislav Shushkevich.

After being blocked from entering neighbouring Lithuania, however, he travelled to the Baltic state via Russia, which has relaxed border controls with Belarus. It was on this route that the three men were arrested yesterday.

A tentative rapprochement between Mr Lukashenko and the West ended abruptly after the December 2010 presidential election that saw him re-elected in dubious circumstances, after which he launched a vicious crackdown on his opponents, some of whom are still in jail.

He has sought Russian help to alleviate a dire economic crisis in Belarus, strengthening Moscow’s hold on the country’s industry and deepening the rift with Brussels and Washington.

As well as maintaining a stranglehold on opposition parties and the media in Belarus, Mr Lukashenko leads the only regime in Europe that still imposes the death penalty.

This month, he approved the execution of two young men who were convicted of planting a deadly bomb in the Minsk metro, despite a paucity of evidence and suggestions the blast was used as a pretext to clamp down on growing anti-Lukashenko dissent.

“We are deeply concerned by their executions a mere 10 days after sentencing, amid reports that the government of Belarus intends to destroy relevant evidence,” said Ian Kelly, the US ambassador to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

He also called the travel ban on Mr Lukashenko’s critics “worrisome” and “contrary to Belarus’s OSCE commitments”. Ireland is current chair of the 56-nation OSCE.