Belarus Fines Politician for Protest, Arrests 20

MINSK -- Authorities in Belarus slapped a big fine on a prominent politician on Thursday and arrested 20 people at a peaceful protest against hardline President Aleksander Lukashenko.

A court fined former opposition deputy Mecheslav Grib for organizing a rally banned by Lukashenko which attracted 10,000 people five days ago.

"This is a political trial," Grib told reporters after receiving the maximum fine of 20 million Belarussian rubles ($830), about 16 times the average monthly wage.

Grib compared the decision with repression by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin who used fake court trials to justify executions of his prominent opponents in the 1930s.

"If a court makes decisions only on the basis of accusations, then it is worse than 1937," he said.

Seven busloads of police sent to monitor a protest by about 50 students later arrested about 20 of them in the latest of a series of detentions at anti-Lukashenko demonstrations.

Lukashenko, facing a "political spring" from opponents of his policy of forming a union with Russia, has ordered a clampdown on protests and has banned nationalist symbols.

The crackdown was apparently expanded to include Westerners on Sunday when the head of the local Soros Foundation, U.S. citizen Peter Bern, was barred from the former Soviet republic of 10 million people for interfering in Belarussian affairs.

State-run television showed him watching an opposition rally while he was accused of taking part in protests.

The Soros Foundation, which invests mostly in education, ecological and medical programs, denied accusations by the authorities that it had funded the opposition.

U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Yalovitz visited the foundation's offices on Thursday "to assure them of the embassy's support for the very important work they do," a spokeswoman said.

Roman Yakovlevsky, a Belarussian member of the foundation's management in Minsk, said investigators had checked documents at its office.

Authorities are also investigating other public organizations which attract foreign money like one for child victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and a fund for organizing political conferences.

First Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov told a news conference that Bern had "participated in the internal political life of Belarus, including funding some of its participants."

Authorities have said the Soros Foundation gave money to an independent privatization and management institute run by two opposition deputies, Pavel Daneiko and Anatoly Lebedko.

The U.S. embassy has accused Belarus of failing to preserve democracy and human rights and said it was telling investors to put money into neighboring countries instead.

Lukashenko scrapped the old parliament in November after winning a referendum which gave him vastly expanded powers. He replaced it with an assembly more favorable to himself.

A strong advocate of reuniting with Moscow, he has broad support among the people but faces vocal opposition from several groups, many of which want to preserve their recently acquired independence from Russia. (Reuters)

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