U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE

Office of the Spokesman


For immediate Release
3/17/97

March 17, 1997

STATEMENT BY NICHOLAS BURNS, SPOKESMAN

BELARUS: DETENTION OF AMERICAN CITIZEN

The United States deplores the detention of Belarusian Soros Foundation Executive Director Peter G. Byrne in Minsk this past weekend. Mr. Byrne was prevented from entering Belarus on March 16 and was expelled on March 17. He is now in Frankfurt.

We consider the failure of the Belarusian government to allow immediate access and to assure proper treatment to be in violation of the diplomatic and consular conventions in effect between the U.S. and Belarus. He was held incommunicado for over 12 hours. He was forced to sleep under guard and provided no food in the morning. Despite repeated approaches to senior-level Belarusian government officials, the U.S. Embassy was denied access to Mr. Byrne until moments before his forced expulsion. Such disregard for international law is reprehensible.

Both the Embassy in Minsk and the Department of State delivered a strong protest to the Belarusian government, in Minsk and at the Embassy of Belarus in Washington, respectively, regarding this detention.

The pretext for Mr. Byrne's expulsion -- that he was ineligible to enter Belarus because of alleged 'illegal' activity -- is indicative of the government's assaults on Belarus's embryonic civil society. The office that Mr. Byrne heads supports democratic reforms, independent media, culture and education. As a member of the OSCE, Belarus has repeatedly violated the commitments it has made to promote the very activities in which Mr. Byrne was engaged.

The United States supports the efforts of the Soros Foundation in Belarus, and we are concerned that this development does not bode well for future democracy efforts in the country.

This incident, a recent Belarusian decree removing the tax-exempt status of humanitarian and human rights organizations, and a recent decree restricting demonstrations by the oppositions, represent a transparent attempt to silence proponents of democracy in Belarus. That effort must not be allowed to succeed.

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