Saturday March 26, 2005 4:46 PM

Belarus Opens Inquiry Against Protesters


Associated Press Writer

MINSK, Belarus (AP) - Prosecutors opened a criminal case Saturday against more than two dozen protesters arrested in a rally demanding the ouster of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Riot police swinging truncheons beat back about 1,000 protesters outside Lukashenko's offices in Minsk on Friday, and 34 of them were arrested for participating in the unsanctioned rally, which came amid the popular uprising in Kyrgyzstan.

Police spokesman Oleg Khlebchenko said prosecutors had opened a criminal cases for mass acts breaching the peace and could charge many of those detained - who would face up to a three-year jail sentence. The criminal case also could end up resulting in charges against people considered to be the organizers of the protest as well as those detained.

Kyrgyzstan is the third former Soviet republic in the past 18 months - after Georgia and Ukraine - to see popular protests bring down long-entrenched leaders widely accused of corruption. Andrei Klimov, an opposition leader who organized the protests, said the Minsk regime's crackdown on political opponents showed that it feared it would be next.

``The opening of a criminal case shows that Lukashenko has really taken fright at the events in Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine and Georgia and is trying to crush any manifestation of democracy,'' said Klimov, who was still at liberty on Saturday.

``The last dictatorship in Europe is surviving on fear and repression,'' he said.

Human-rights activists agreed, saying the authorities' heavy-handed tactics risked enflaming opposition to Lukashenko's rule.

``The mass repression against opponents of Lukashenko is aimed at preventing a revolution but this is only bringing the situation to a head. Sooner or later, people will overcome their fear,'' said the head of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, Tatyana Protko.

Friday's protest was one of the biggest in the Belarusian capital in recent months.

Belarus and the isolated Central Asian state of Turkmenistan are seen as the most repressive regimes in the region.

Lukashenko, who has ruled this nation of 10 million for a decade, came under strong international criticism last year for a referendum that scrapped presidential term limits and gave him the go-ahead to seek a third term in 2006.