By Katya Andrusz
Some 40,000 protesters smashed windows in an effort to enter the Belarusian parliament in central Minsk after preliminary results of yesterday's elections showed President Alexander Lukashenko had won a fourth term in office.
"The demonstration was brutally suppressed," said Alexander Atroshchenko, spokesman for opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov, by phone from Minsk, adding that Sannikov and his wife had been arrested. "I fear it could be a long time before he's freed. But the protest will be back in the evening."
According to initial results announced on the Central Election Commission's website late yesterday, Lukashenko had gained 89.1 percent of the vote, with Sannikov, his closest rival, garnering only 1.6 percent. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which had 456 observers in Belarus for the election, is due to hold a press conference in Minsk at 2 p.m. local time today.
International commentators condemned the election, in which nine candidates were running against Lukashenko.
"The results were certain before the election started," said Joerg Forbrig, senior program officer for Central and Eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin, by phone before the vote. The monitoring campaign Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections said in a statement "the early voting stage was marked by all the flaws typical of" presidential elections four years ago and that there had been "numerous violations" of the electoral code.
Protests following Belarus's last presidential election four years ago fizzled out after freezing temperatures and multiple detentions shut down a camp demonstrators had set up outside the electoral commission in central Minsk. The OSCE said the 2006 vote didn't conform to international democratic standards.
A country of 10 million wedged between European Union member Poland to the west and Russia to the east, Belarus was dubbed the "last dictatorship in Europe" by the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush. The U.S., the European Union and the United Nations Commission for Human Rights have criticized Lukashenko for silencing opponents and restricting the media.
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