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Belarus24 February 2006

23 days to go before presidential election: opposition paper may be forced to close

Reporters Without Borders today accused Belarusian authorities of using an opposition paper’s printing of some of the controversial Mohammed cartoons as an excuse to try to close it down.

The Minsk state prosecutor began legal action on 22 February against the opposition weekly Zhoda for “incitement to religious hatred” (article 130 of the criminal code), which is punishable by a fine or up to five years in prison.

“The cartoons controversy has come at a good time for President Alexander Lukashenko and his unjustified and deplorable move is just a way to attack the paper, which backs the Social Democratic Party of Alexander Kazulin, one of his main rivals in next month’s presidential election,” the worldwide press freedom organisation said. “The paper has already been hounded by the authorities and it will probably now be forced to close before the elections.”

KGB secret police searched the paper’s premises on 22 February and seized four computers. Editor Alexei Korol and his deputy, Alexander Sdvizhkov, were interrogated at KGB offices for several hours.

Sdvizhkov told Reporters Without Borders that the move by the authorities was politically-inspired, using the publication of the cartoons on 17 February as an excuse to try to shut down the paper.

The foreign ministry said it condemned “any action that could stir up religious hatred” or cause friction between the country’s religious and ethnic minorities.

Zhoda has been routinely hounded for several months by the authorities, who have made searches, confiscated computers and even ordered the post office to break off its contract with the paper to handle subscription copies.

The Mohammed cartoons, first published in a Danish paper last September, have caused many strong protests around the world, but none of the minorities in Belarus has protested against them. Muslims are less than 1% of the country’s population.

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