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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Grants Political Asylum To Belarus Opposition Heads

WASHINGTON -- The United States granted political asylum Friday to two opposition leaders from Belarus, saying they might be persecuted at home.

The head of the Belarus Popular Front, Zenon Poznyak, and the party's press secretary, Sergei Naumchik, released a document from the Immigration and Naturalization Service allowing them to remain in the United States indefinitely.

"It has been determined that you have established a well-founded fear of persecution were you to return to your country,'' said the letter, from he local asylum office in suburban Arlington, Virginia.

At INS headquarters spokesman Daniel Kane said people involved were free to comment, but it was U.S. government policy to never confirm, deny or discuss political asylum decisions.

The men said they left their homeland because their lives were endangered by the hardline regime of President Alexander Lukashenko. They issued a written statement decrying "destruction of Belarus' nationhood,'' including the closing of native-language schools, historical institute and linguistics institute, and curbs on press freedoms.

Poznyak has long been the leading nationalist opposition figure in the former Soviet republic.

The Belarus government has denied Poznyak's and Naumchik's lives were at risk and accused them of trying to split society in the former Soviet republic. Lukashenko has shown little tolerance for dissent, responding to anti-government demonstrations with a wave of arrests and the closure of newspapers.

Last week, he announced plans to cancel a parliamentary election and go ahead with a referendum on extending his powers.

Earlier this month, Oleg Sluka, an aide to Lukashenko, said the asylum-seekers were "destabilizing the political situation in the republic by trying to present themselves as exiles.''

Located between Russia and Poland, Belarus became independent with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Lukashenko has signed agreements for closer ties with Russia and restored some Soviet symbols.

The Popular Front and other opposition parties say the treaty with Russia undermined Belarus' independence and turned the nation into a virtual Communist province.