MINSK - Belarussian security forces today beat and detained an opposition candidate who is challenging President Alexander Lukashenko, accused in the west of flouting human rights, in an election later this month.
Alexander Kozulin was attempting to register for a mass gathering of delegates to be addressed by the president when plain-clothed officers knocked him to the ground, took him out of a hall in central Minsk and drove him away.
Officers also scuffled with journalists present. A Reuters television correspondent was beaten and injured.
Accused in the West of curbing fundamental freedoms, muzzling the press and systematically rigging elections, Lukashenko is heavily favoured in this month's poll against Kozulin and two other challengers.
A spokeswoman for Kozulin, former rector of Belarussian State University, said the 50-year-old candidate was being held in a Minsk police station.
"He has been beaten up quite badly. We don't know what his status is at the moment," Nina Shidlovskaya said by telephone.
Dozens of Kozulin supporters later gathered outside the police station to demand his release. Police bundled about 20 protesters into a bus and took them away.
Several journalists, including a Reuters photographer were briefly forced inside the station and their equipment confiscated.
Lukashenko was setting out his policy priorities in a lengthy address today to the Belarussian National Congress, an institute backing the president.
The US and EU have expressed concern about the March 19 contest and say they will consider toughening sanctions against Belarus if the election is not free and fair.
The incumbent will face two candidates representing Belarus's small liberal and nationalist opposition - Kozulin, a sharp critic of Lukashenko's 12 years in office, and Alexander Milinkevich, who is backed by most opposition groups. The third contender is Lukashenko's ally, Sergei Gaidukevich.
Milinkevich was due to hold a rally in central Minsk later today without police permission. He has vowed to take "appropriate measures" if police use force to break up the meeting.
Milinkevich denounced police action against Kozulin, saying the elections had now degenerated into a "farce".
"The authorities are panicked and afraid of democratic elections," he said in a statement.
"They clearly understand that they are unable to win a democratic contest and are therefore resorting to breaking the law and repression of their opponents."