Belarus rival candidates face charges

By Jan Cienski in Warsaw

Seven presidential candidates are facing serious criminal charges as Belarus's authoritarian government continues its crackdown on the opposition following anti-government protests during flawed presidential elections earlier this month.

The December 19 elections - in which Alexander Lukashenko won a fourth term in office - were accompanied by large protests in which more than 10,000 people marched through Minsk. The demonstration was broken up by riot police after some people tried to break into a government building.

Police have since raided several opposition and human rights offices and non-government newspapers. Four of the candidates are being held in prison, and will remain in detention for two months while charges are prepared, while two others have been told not to leave the country. The status of the seventh candidate, Andrei Mikhalevich, is unclear.

One of the leading opposition candidates, poet Vladimir Neklyayev, was severely beaten on his way to the demonstration. One of his lawyers has appealed to the government that he be hospitalised, saying his speech is sluggish and his blood pressure is very high.

Lawyers for Andrei Sannikov, a former deputy foreign minister and another leading opponent of Mr Lukashenko, says he has also been beaten in prison. Mr Sannikov and his wife - who is also in prison for having taken part in the demonstration - now face a hearing on the future of their three-year-old son, who could be sent to an orphanage.

A further two dozen opposition activists also face charges of organising anti-government government demonstrations - for which the maximum sentence is 15 years in prison.

Earlier this week, about 300 people sentenced to 10-day prison terms after the protests were released, and more were scheduled to be set free after the new year.

The government's strong line against the opposition ends a two-year thaw that had allowed a limited degree of press and political freedom under pressure from the European Union.

Mr Lukashenko's steps have drawn criticism from Belarus's neighbours. Warsaw moved this week to make it easier for Belarusians to travel to Poland by removing visa fees, while noting that Poland reserves the right to prevent the entry of people responsible for the current crackdown.

"We want to help our neighbours in strengthening their European identity," said Marcin Bosacki, Polish foreign ministry spokesman.

In a comment about the demonstrations, Vadim Gigin, editor of a government newspaper, has called them a "coup attempt", a sign of how seriously Mr Lukashenko is treating the threat to his regime.

The fierce reaction of the authorities has put off any future protest plans, said Alexander Lahvinec, an opposition activist, in a telephone interview, but he insisted that the opposition has not been broken. "I don't think Lukashenko has been successful in eliminating the opposition. We will continue to act - this is our country."


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