Activists arrested as Belarusians vote


Associated Press

MINSK, Belarus - Authorities arrested more opposition activists Tuesday as Belarusians cast early ballots for Sunday's presidential election, a closely watched contest that opponents of the authoritarian incumbent fear will be rigged in his favor.

After pushing through a widely contested referendum scrapping limits on how long a president can serve, Alexander Lukashenko is seeking a third term to lead the former Soviet republic. The man branded by Western nations as "Europe's last dictator" is widely expected to win.

At least three more supporters and aides to the main opposition candidate, Alexander Milinkevich, were detained, rights officials said, bringing the number of opposition activists arrested during the election campaign to more than 300.

Opposition leaders have called for peaceful protests if votes are counted fraudulently, but authorities' ban on any rallies Sunday has potentially set the stage for violent confrontation.

Milinkevich has urged Belarusians not to take part in the early voting, calling it a ploy by authorities aimed at falsifying election results. The opposition contends it allows for multiple voting and ballot-stuffing at unguarded and unmonitored polling stations.

A university student who identified himself only as Andrei out of fear of retribution, said students had been warned "that if we don't vote early, there could be problems." He said he had voted for "a free and European future" but declined to say whom he supported.

Others said they had voted early out of convenience.

"I did not come because we're forced, but because I'm going home to my parents' home in the country on election day," said Oksana Rublyako, a third-year university student.

Galina Grushnitskaya, a 72-year-old retiree, said she was voting early - for Lukashenko - because she feared opposition-orchestrated violence on election day.

Milinkevich told The Associated Press that he'd urged Belarusians not to take part in early voting because "your votes will simply be stolen."

Nikolai Lazovik, an official with the Central Election Commission, denied that. "This procedure is set out by the law and there's nothing frightening about it," he said.

According to official statistics, as many as 30 percent of voters usually take part in early balloting, and the opposition fears those ballots could be manipulated. Opposition parties have been denied of virtually any representation on election commissions that monitor the vote.

There are some 7 million eligible voters in this nation of 10 million, according to the Central Election Commission.

Rights activists said at least two opposition supporters and an aide to Milinkevich had been arrested in two different cities and charged with organizing unsanctioned demonstrations.

Ales Belyatski, of the rights center "Vyasna," said more than 300 activists had been arrested to date.

In addition to Milinkevich, Lukashenko is facing another opposition challenger and a pro-Lukashenko politician who is widely viewed as running to add electoral legitimacy.

Lukashenko has ruled with an iron fist since 1994, quashing dissent and opposition, and maintaining his grip on power through votes dismissed as illegitimate by his critics.