Belarus opposition candidate beaten and detained

By Ron Popeski

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarussian security forces on Thursday beat and detained an opposition candidate who is challenging a new bid for re-election by President Alexander Lukashenko, accused in the west of crushing dissent.

A second candidate representing Belarus's small liberal and nationalist opposition planned an evening street rally without securing official permission and vowed to take "appropriate measures" if authorities resorted to force.

The West accuses Lukashenko, in office since 1994, of curbing freedoms, muzzling the press, systematically rigging elections and clinging to Soviet-style economics. He is heavily favoured to defeat three challengers in the March 19 race.

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 tried to stop journalists from filming the incident and scuffles broke out. A Reuters television correspondent was beaten and injured.

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 also bundled about 20 protesters into a bus and took them away.

Several journalists, including a Reuters photographer, were briefly forced inside the station.

The main opposition candidate, Alexander Milinkevich, issued a statement denouncing the police action against Kozulin, saying the elections had now degenerated into a "farce".

"The authorities are panicked and afraid of democratic elections," he said. "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."

Milinkevich was due to hold an illegal rally in central Minsk later on Thursday. He has said he will not incite Belarussians to unrest but has not ruled out protests if the election is proved to be rigged.


Lukashenko, undeterred by opposition activities, told the Belarussian National Congress that under his rule, Belarus had shunned "destructive privatisation and shock therapy" and developed into a "stable, prosperous, civilised country".

"We have hauled our country out of poverty... Our policies have proved to be correct," he said in the lengthy televised address. "The secret of our success is strong central state power, a strong social policy and reliance on our people."

Salaries and pensions had risen, the gap between rich and poor kept to a minimum and organised crime eliminated, he told 2,500 delegates.

Lukashenko remains highly popular, particularly in the provinces, where he is widely seen as a guarantor against the instability of other ex-Soviet states.

An independent opinion poll published this week gave him about 59 percent of support, compared to 17 percent for Milinkevich. Kozulin trails along with a fourth candidate Sergei Gaidukevich, Lukashenko's ally.

Lukashenko has vowed to cut short any electoral turmoil like the mass protests that helped unseat unpopular governments in ex-Soviet Georgia and Ukraine.

The ranks of opposition demonstrators have been further thinned by recent legislation providing for long jail terms for illegal assembly.

The head of the country's security service, still known by its Soviet-era acronym KGB, said on Wednesday opposition groups had been thwarted in their plans to seize power by force.

The United States and European Union 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.