Europe to Lukashenko: free dissident

  • 2005-02-23
  • By Aaron Eglitis
RIGA - The president of the European Parliament, Josep Borrell, sent a letter to the Belarusian Embassy in Brussels requesting a fair trial for Mikhail Marinich, who is currently in prison.

The appeal, however, largely fell on deaf ears, as Marinich was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison on Feb. 18, according to Charter 97, a Belarusian opposition group.

Mikhail Marinich, formally an ambassador to Latvia and a presidential candidate for his country, has been in prison since his conviction in December 2004 for allegedly misappropriating computers that had been loaned to him by the U.S. government.

Originally Marinich had received a five-year sentence, despite testimony from the U.S. Embassy saying that they had no complaint against him. His lawyers said they would continue to appeal the sentence until they received a full acquittal.

Marinich was widely seen as a possible opposition figure to strongman Alexandr Lukashenko. He ran for president in 2001 against Lukashenko. Today his presence poses a threat to a regime that many have called the last dictatorship in Europe. His plight has become something of a cause for celebre in the Baltic states, where MEPs at the European Parliament have taken up his cause.

Borrell's letter was sent last week, but his office said it had yet to hear back from Belarusian authorities.

Marinich has been held in pretrial detention since last April. Initially detained for a traffic violation, his money was confiscated at the time by the KGB, who later claimed he had been in position of counterfeit bills. Security officials then went to his residence, uncovering a gun and a batch of computers that had been on loan from the U.S. government for a business group that he ran, according to Amnesty International.

Borrell acted after he received a letter from Christopher Beazley, an MEP acting in the name of the Baltic-Europe Intergroup. The letter was also signed by MEPs Inese Vaidere (Latvia), Vytautas Landsbergis (Lithuania), and Bogan Golik (Poland).

"The trial did not meet international standards of transparency and due process," Borrell wrote in his letter. "The European Parliament strongly condemns the persecution of citizens for reasons of their political beliefs. I call on the authorities of your country to guarantee a fair and transparent appeal procedure."

But despite the pleas 's or perhaps because of them 's the sentence was only reduced by 18 months.

Initiators of the letter were uncertain of its efficacy. "I hope so, but it's difficult to tell," Beazely told The Baltic Times. "We will continue to put pressure on Belarus until Mr. Marinich is freed."

Beazley added that there is now more attention paid to Belarus by the EU, due partly to the addition of new member states, and that the Ukrainian President's upcoming visit would draw more attention to the region in general.

The letter that called for Marinich's release came while his two sons visited Brussels to make an appeal on their father's behalf. Pavel and Igor Marinich, who were invited by Aldis Kuskis, a MEP from Latvia, spoke to parliamentarians and members of the Council of Europe.

In December the European Parliament awarded the Bela-rusian Association of Journalists the Sakharov Prize for its fight in the adversity of the Lukashenko regime.

Pressure has been building against the isolated regime of Lukashenko among Western countries, and indeed is one area where EU and U.S. leaders see eye-to-eye. Lukashenko is barred from traveling to the EU, and assets belonging to a number of his operatives may be frozen.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently called Belarus an "outpost of tyranny" and one of six "fear societies" along with North Korea and Iran. Senator John McCain has made several trips to Riga to decry the Lukashenko regime.

But despite the increasing isolation, Lukashenko remains unchallenged at home, and due to a change in the constitution, he looks set to "win" a third election in 2006.

Many are hoping for multicolored street demonstrations similar to those in Tbilisi and Kiev that force Lukashenko to make concessions to the democratic opposition.