Alexander Lukashenko's hardline regime detains hundreds after election protests as international monitors condemn Belarus poll
A presidential candidate in Belarus was arrested and dragged from his hospital bed early today, just hours after police beat him and other protesters who rallied against an allegedly rigged election victory for the hardline leader, Alexander Lukashenko.
Men thought to be security agents carried the candidate Vladimir Neklyayev, a 64-year-old poet, out of a ward where he was being treated for blows to the head at about 2am. His wife, Olga, told reporters: "We were in a hospital room when plainclothes men burst in, wrapped him up in a blanket and dragged out of the room in an unknown direction."
Six others of the nine opposition candidates in the election, including former deputy foreign minister, Andei Sannikov, were reportedly under arrest this morning as Lukashenko's regime moved swiftly to crush dissent.
Up to 400 activists were also in detention, according to the Vyasna human rights group, which itself was stormed at 3.15am by members of the KGB, as Belarus's security agency is still called. Ten employees of the group were arrested as they collated information from observers at polling stations.
An international monitoring group from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) today condemned the election as neither free nor democratic. "Election night was marred by the detention of most presidential candidates and hundreds of activists, journalists and civil society representatives," it said.
Tens of thousands of protesters converged on central Minsk last night, as exit polls indicated that Lukashenko - a Soviet-style dictator - would be awarded four-fifths of the vote. The crowds were dispersed by baton-wielding riot police in black helmets, leaving several protesters with bloody faces.
Belarus's election commission announced Lukashenko as the winner this morning with 80% of the vote.
Several opposition websites were blocked or intermittently online today including Charter97.org and Zapraudu.info, the site of Neklyayev's Speak the Truth! movement.
Andrej Dynko, chief editor of the independent Nasha Niva newspaper, told the Guardian: "Seven of the presidential candidates are unreachable by telephone and one of them, Grigory Kostusev managed to send a text message saying he was delivered to Amerikanka, the KGB prison in Minsk. We think they are all there."
Dynko said several hundred activists were being held at police stations and a pre-trial detention centre after being rounded up yesterday: "Preventative arrests began even before the protests. Neklyayev was attacked an hour before they started and beaten almost to death. It was an intimidation."
He added: "Lukashenko tried to make cosmetic changes and pretend he was liberalising Belarus - but he slipped back into his old, repressive ways."
The 56-year-old former collective farm manager has ruled Belarus with an iron grip since 1994 and his two re-elections since were judged unfair by the OSCE. About 10,000 people protested against Lukashenko regaining the presidency in 2006, but police destroyed an opposition tent camp set up in Minsk's October Square.
In the past, Lukashenko relied on political support from Moscow, but the relationship wobbled earlier this year after disputes over Minsk's debts for Siberian gas and a Russian ban on Belarus dairy products. Lukashenko also irked the Kremlin by attempting to forge closer ties with the European Union.
The disputes resulted in Russian state television launching a smear campaign against Lukashenko, with a series of documentaries called The God-Daddy, a play on the leader's nickname, Batka (Daddy). Moscow also indicated it was ready to support opposition candidates in yesterday's poll.
However, the relationship appeared to be mended last week when Russia agreed to drop duties on oil exports to Belarus and keep natural gas prices low. The Russia-led CIS observer mission approved today's result and Russia's president, Dmitry Medvedev, said the elections were an "internal affair for Belarus". He added: "Hopefully, after the election, Belarus will continue to develop as a modern state based on democracy."