BELARUS HAS charged several of the politicians who ran against Alexander Lukashenko in this month's disputed president election with organising mass unrest, threatening them with a 15-year prison sentence.
Four of the nine men who challenged Mr Lukashenko in the ballot have been charged, according to their lawyers, and three of them were allegedly injured by police during their arrest or while in custody and are being denied medical treatment. Another candidate was expected to be charged last night.
Pictures taken as riot police dispersed protesters shortly after voting ended on December 19th showed leading opposition candidate Vladimir Neklyayev semiconscious with bad bruising to his face after what his supporters called a police attack.
Relatives said he was later taken from hospital by the KGB security service while awaiting treatment and had suffered an attack of hypertension, sending his blood pressure soaring. Lawyer Tamara Sidorenko said his blood pressure had not come down and he was having trouble talking and moving, after being refused a doctor's visit.
"At any moment Neklyayev could die," she said. "He has been charged, but he cannot be questioned." Candidates Andrei Sannikov, Nikolai Statkevich, and Vitaly Rymashevsky have also been charged with organising the unrest - which opposition groups say was caused when riot police attacked peaceful protesters in the centre of the capital, Minsk. Another candidate, Alexei Mikhalevich, was expected to be charged yesterday, his lawyer said.
Official results of the ballot gave Mr Lukashenko almost 80 per cent of votes on a turnout of 90 per cent, figures reminiscent of Soviet era "elections". The nearest challenger to a man once dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by the White House won less than 3 per cent of votes.
The US, major European nations and the EU have condemned perceived electoral violations and the police crackdown on the protesters, which saw some 600 people arrested.
During 16 years in power, Mr Lukashenko has stifled opposition parties and independent media, and is blamed by some for the disappearance of prominent critics.
Mr Lukashenko's relationship with Moscow deteriorated in recent years as it showed reluctance to continue supplying cheap energy. Amid speculation the Kremlin might not support Mr Lukashenko - raising EU hopes of coaxing him out of Moscow's influence - Russia agreed to provide subsidised oil next year for greater access to Belarus's economy.