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Belarus Protesters Sentenced

On March 25th, several hundred people rallied in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, demanding the resignation of authoritarian President Aleksander Lukashenko. A massive presence of security forces dispersed the rally, at times using excessive force. They arrested thirty-one protestors and inflicted several injuries.

A Minsk court convicted twenty-four protesters on charges of organizing or participating in actions intended to upset the social order. They were sentenced to jail terms of three to fifteen days.

Rally organizers could face up to three years in prison. Pro-democracy leaders remain undeterred. "Repression will not stop the democratic process," said opposition leader Vyacheslav Sivchik.

The protests in Minsk marked the anniversary of the founding of the Belarusian National Republic in 1918. They came one day after mass demonstrations in Kyrgyzstan forced Kygrgyz President Askar Akayev to flee the country. The Central Asian country is the third former Soviet republic in the past sixteen months -- after Georgia and Ukraine -- to bring down entrenched autocratic regimes.

Andrei Klimov is an opposition leader who organized the protests in Minsk. He said his goal was to spark a movement that would bring democratic change to Belarus. "The judicial process proves that Belarus remains the last dictatorship in Europe," Klimov said. "The flywheel of repression launched by Lukashenko illustrates only the fear that Lukashenko is living in, following the events in Kyrgyzstan, Georgia and Ukraine."

In a statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Minsk, the U.S. condemned the use of force and expressed concern about the reports of injuries. The U.S. also called upon the government of Belarus to use dialogue, not violence and repression, and to uphold its constitutional and international commitments to freedom of speech and assembly. Clearly, the people of Belarus want to be free, as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said:

"We know from history that while citizens' desire for individual freedoms and rights can be repressed for a time by authoritarian and/or corrupt regimes, there comes a time when all people have had enough, striking a spark of liberty, and then they rise up to take control of their own futures and their own destinies."

The U.S. stands with the people of Belarus. As President George W. Bush has said, it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation, including Belarus.

The preceding was an editorial reflecting the views of the United States government.