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Thousands protest flawed election; access to independent media blocked

(Freedom House/IFEX) - Washington - December 19, 2010 - Attempts today by Belarusian authorities to suppress voices of opposition during and after its election, including beating protestors and blocking access to independent media and social networking sites, have extinguished any hope for a free and fair process in Belarus, according to Freedom House.

Thousands of people gathered in Minsk's October Square after polls closed today in Belarus, where the country held a presidential election that, based on early indications, fell far short of meeting international standards. Contrary to expectations in some Western news reports that incumbent Alexander Lukashenka, often referred to as "Europe's last dictator," would sail to victory and that the country had experienced a freer atmosphere compared to the 2006 elections, Belarusian state actions over the past 24 hours clearly show that the political environment in that country remains as much, if not more, repressive than ever. The Lukashenka regime launched attacks on independent Internet media sites and mobile networks, crippling most observers' ability to report on the situation, and at least one opposition presidential candidate was reportedly badly beaten. Dozens more were reportedly detained following a violent crackdown against the demonstrators.

"Early signs indicate that Lukashenka and his cronies are up to their old tricks," says Freedom House Executive Director David J. Kramer. "Attacks on Internet and mobile network sites suggest an effort to conceal fraud at the polls. The thuggish behavior by authorities in dealing with protestors deserves immediate condemnation. Democratic forces around the world should be standing with those thousands of brave people in October Square protesting Lukashenka's effort to stay in power no matter what."

Mobile networks have been crippled, independent media sites have been attacked, and key internet sites such as Facebook and Gmail have all been blocked.

"The online community in Belarus has been bracing itself for anticipated post-electoral restrictions of the Internet, but today's disruption is a surprise for a regime that was consciously attempting to present itself as more pluralistic," Freedom House Director of Internet Freedom Robert Guerra said.

"To those who were left with the impression from various Western news reports that today's vote in Belarus was a liberalizing step, the unfortunate set of facts we are now seeing tells a very different story."

Belarus is ranked Not Free in Freedom in the World 2010, Freedom House's annual global assessment of political rights and civil liberties, and Not Free in Freedom of the Press 2010.

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