The crackdown on political dissent in Belarus has intensified. A Belarusian court has again convicted opposition leaders Nikolai Statkevich and Pavel Severinets of staging a series of unauthorized demonstrations against President Alexander Lukashenko in late 2004.
The men were protesting against fraudulent parliamentary elections and a fraudulent October referendum that eliminated presidential term limits and opened the possibility for Mr. Lukashenko to become "president for life." Mr. Statkevich and Mr. Severinets served prison time in October for the same politically motivated charge. They have now been sentenced again to one year compulsory labor to be performed outside of prison. U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called the sentences and the charges "outrageous."
The convictions appear aimed at silencing Belarus' pro-democracy opposition. Alexander Sosnov is the director of the Minsk-based Socio-Economic and Political Studies Institute. The Belarusian authorities, he said, are trying to stamp out all opposition ahead of the 2006 presidential election. "The authorities understand perfectly well that it is impossible for them to win in a fair way," he said. "They need to falsify these elections. But to do that they need to make silent those who speak openly."
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has warned the Lukashenko government that its "behavior is being watched. This is not a dark corner in which things can go unobserved, uncommented on, as if Belarus was somehow not a part of the European continent." And other countries will be watching the 2006 presidential election in Belarus, said Secretary of State Rice:
"What the United States will always support is the evolution of democratic processes around the world and the desire of people to tap into the aspirations of their populations for freedom. And we will support the idea that elections, when they are held, should be real elections. They should not be sham elections and the international community ought to be prepared and ready to help Belarus to carry out a free and fair election in 2006."
If the Belarusian government wants to show that it is serious about holding free and fair elections, it would immediately release all political prisoners. It would also grant the political opposition the right to assemble and associate peacefully and the freedom to express its views. The people of Belarus deserve nothing less.
The preceding was an editorial reflecting the views of the United States government.