Belarus charges opposition candidates with organising riots

(AFP) - 3 hours ago

MINSK - Belarussian authorities charged on Wednesday four former presidential candidates who opposed incumbent authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko with organising post-election riots.

"The charge of organising mass disturbances has been announced to Vladimir Nekliayev," his lawyer Tamara Fidorenko said.

Candidates Andrei Sannikov, Nikolai Statkevich, and Vitaly Rymashevsky were presented with the same charge, their lawyers told AFP.

Another candidate, Alexei Mikhalevich, is likely to be charged Thursday. "I was called in for tomorrow," his lawyer Oleg Ageyev told AFP.

The five candidates have been held in a prison controlled by the KGB security service.

Another two contenders, Rygor Kostusev and Dmitry Uss, are under investigation as part of the same probe and are barred from leaving the country.

A total of 26 people have been identified as suspects in government's criminal investigation into "mass disturbances" in Minsk on December 19, when tens of thousands of people came to a central square to protest Lukashenko's re-election.

Besides seven former candidates the list includes their campaign managers, trustees, and some other opposition activists.

If convicted of the charge, they could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.

Vladimir Nekliayev, who was severely beaten before the mass rally, was taken from the hospital last week by KGB officers despite his injuries. He suffered a hypertension crisis on Wednesday, his lawyer said.

"If it weren't for his cellmates, he would be dead," she said.

Andrei Sannikov and Vitaly Rymashevsky also sustained injuries during their detainment.

Police broke up a rally of tens of thousands that protested the outcome of the election in Minsk and detained over 600 people. Official election results gave Lukashenko a huge victory with almost 80 percent of the vote.

About 300 people, most of whom finished their 10-day prison sentences, were released on Wednesday night. Belarussian authorities also released 11 Russian citizens, the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.

Lukashenko, once branded Europe's last dictator by Washington, vowed after the elections that he would come down hard on those behind the protestors warning the opposition they were "messing with the wrong guy".


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