Wife of beaten Belarus candidate blocked from jail


Associated Press

The wife of an arrested presidential candidate in Belarus said Thursday authorities are not letting her into the jail to see how badly he was beaten.

Vladimir Neklyayev, a top challenger to authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko in Sunday's election, was beaten as he led supporters to a demonstration protesting alleged election fraud. Lukashenko won with nearly 80 percent of the votes, but international monitors said the election was deeply flawed.

Olga Neklyayeva told The Associated Press that she thinks authorities are blocking access to the jail because "they are afraid to show the horror they committed."

Six other candidates were also arrested, some of them when around 10,000 demonstrators were dispersed by club-swinging riot police. Andrei Sannikov, another top challenger, was among those beaten by the police. Sannikov and his wife, a prominent journalist, have both been jailed.

Sannikov, Neklyayev and most of the other arrested candidates face charges of organizing mass disturbances, which could bring a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

Neklyayev's regular lawyer has also been denied access, but a court-appointed attorney, Nelly Podsadnaya, said Thursday the candidate "appears normal" except for a severe bruise under one eye.

More than 700 people were arrested in the hours after the polls closed, many of them already sentenced to five-to-15 days in prison.

The arrests and the questionable vote tally for Lukashenko, who has run a repressive regime since coming to power in 1994, have sparked an array of denunciations from the West, which had hoped the country _ situated between Russia and NATO states _ would come through on promised reforms.

On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her European Union counterpart Catherine Ashton released a joint statement condemning the violence and calling for the release of those arrested. "The elections and their aftermath represent an unfortunate step backwards" for Belarus, the statement said.

The West has been eager to lure Belarus out of its quasi-Soviet patterns of political repression, human rights abuses, lack of independent broadcast media and a largely state-controlled economy. The EU offered Belarus 3 billion euros in aid if the elections were judged free and fair.

Lukashenko had appeared to be toying with taking the aid, and had even sharply criticized traditional patron Russia during the campaign. But his tone changed after Russia agreed to eliminate tariffs for oil _ Belarus' economy is dependent on below-market oil and gas from Russia.

Russia wants to keep Belarus within its sphere of influence as part of its desire to be a world power _ 20 percent of Russia's natural gas exports to Europe also transit Belarus.

But although the election was seen as clearly tilting Belarus back toward the Kremlin, Russia has appeared uncomfortable and even angry about the beatings and arrests.

Russia's state-controlled TV news shows have repeatedly shown images of Neklyayev, a poet, lying on the snow after being beaten and even broadcast a statement of support from renowned fellow poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who now lives in the United States.

In addition, Russia's leaders have been notably hesitant to offer congratulations to Lukashenko.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has given only an elliptical response, saying '"We proceed from the assumption that the election results should reflect the sovereign will of Belarus' people."

Russian Ambassador Alexander Surikov on Thursday said the lack of congratulations "is more a matter of the elections commission, which up to this time hasn't announced (final) official results.

Those results are to be announced on Friday, and Russia's response will be watched for signs of renewed warmth or continued unease.


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