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Belarus12 May 2004

KGB searches independent newspaper

Reporters Without Borders has protested against a KGB search of the offices of the independent weekly Den - already subjected to months of official harassment - and seizure of several of its computers.

The three-hour raid on the newspaper’s premises on 11 May 2004 was carried out on the orders of Vladimir Onisko, deputy prosecutor for the Grodno region, near the Polish border.

The newspaper was suspected of involvement in the publication of tracts seen as "discrediting" President Alexander Lukashenko. The search ended with the state security committee (KGB) officers seizing four computers.

"We are extremely angry at the methods used by the authorities, particularly the KGB, to prevent journalists on Den from working normally. We urge you to put an end to this unacceptable harassment and to ensure the return of the computer equipment seized during this search," Reporters Without Borders wrote to interior minister Vladimir Naumov.

Mikolai Markevich, editor of Den, told Reporters Without Borders that the newspaper was not involved in the production of the tracts and that the search was just the latest move in a campaign by the authorities against independent media and NGOs in the run-up to legislative elections in autumn 2004.

The search came a few days before the time limit set by the authorities for the newspaper to quit its offices. The housing administrative office in Grodno ordered the organisation Batskaushchina that hosts the Den team, to vacate the premises before 15 May.

It accused the organisation of illegally sub-letting its office to the newspaper. Markevich pointed out that the administration has more than ten times refused him the right to officially set up the newspaper in Grodno.

The newspaper has been subjected to months of escalating obstruction to its publication: lightning seizures, repeated tax investigations and refusal of the country’s printers to work with the newspaper.

Police seized 4,800 copies of Den at Ivye, 130 kms from Grodno, on their way to Belarus from the printers in Smolensk, Russia on 7 April.

The seized issue carried an article complaining about police refusal to take action against two men who were arrested on 18 March attempting to break into the Batskaushchyna offices. Markevich recognised one of the men as a KGB officer.

The newspaper received a letter from the regional prosecutor’s office on 17 April confirming that the two men were KGB officers.

The Svetach print works in Minsk illegally broke its contract with the newspaper in November 2003 as did the distributors, Belsayuzdruk, on 29 January 2004, forcing the paper to print in Russia.

Markevich, then editor of the weekly Pagonya was sentenced on 15 August 2002, to 18 months hard labour for allowing articles to be published in his paper accusing the president of being implicated in the disappearance of opponents of his regime. Pavel Mazheiko, of the same paper, was sentenced to one-year hard labour for having "insulted" the president. On 13 November 2001, the newspaper was closed down.

Reporters Without Borders condemns the administrative harassment of the independent press in its 2004 annual report. These papers are seen as too critical of the Lukachenko regime, which the international press freedom organisation lists as one of the 37 "predator of press freedom" worldwide.

During 2003, the authorities suspended and repeatedly sanctioned more than ten newspapers, prevented around 15 independent media from appearing and shut down several human rights organisations that were providing the media with a valuable service.

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