Opposition candidates in Belarus charged over protests

Minsk - Belarus authorities have laid charges against seven opposition candidates over protests following the December 19 elections.

The politicians face charges of having called for the unauthorized rallies against the re-election of authoritarian president Aleksander Lukashenko and may face lengthy prison terms, their lawyers said late Wednesday according to the Belapan news agency.

Authorities have said an official statement on the charges, which have been filed against 26 opposition members in total, would be made Thursday. Twenty of the accused have been detained.

Belarus's penal code prescribes sentences of up to 15 years for 'organizing violent unrest' and the law has been used in the past against the opposition. In 2006, Lukashenko-challenger Alexander Kozulin was sentenced to five and half years in prison, but was pardoned in 2008, following lobbying by the European Union.

More than 20,000 demonstrators turned out in central Minsk to protest against the allegedly fixed results and some demonstrators tried to storm a government building.

Police arrested more than 600 while brutally breaking up the street protests.

According to official results, Lukashenko, who is often referred to as 'Europe's last dictator,' was elected to a fourth term with about 80 per cent of the vote.

Election monitors of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe criticized the elections as undemocratic and said the vote counting had been fraudulent.

According to witnesses, two candidates, Vladimir Neklyayev and Vitaly Rimashevsky, were first beaten up by police and then arrested.

Neklyayev was suffering from high blood pressure and was in bad condition, his lawyer Tamara Sidorenko said Wednesday. Five of the seven accused opposition politicians remain in detention, the two others have been released under strict conditions.


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