Belarus opposition candidate detained

ISN SECURITY WATCH (Thursday, 2 March: 16.58 CET) - An opposition candidate for presidential elections in Belarus has been detained and allegedly beaten by police in the capital, Minsk, just ahead of 19 March polls in which he was to challenge long-time ruler Aleksandar Lukashenko, news agencies reported. Aleksandar Kozulin, the leader of the Aside Social Democratic Party, and three other party members were detained by authorities. A spokesman from Kozulin's office said the party leader had been beaten by police during the arrest. According to news agency reports, Kozulin was attempting to register for a meeting of delegates to be addressed by the president when he was assaulted by plain-clothed police who dragged him from the hall and forced him into an unmarked vehicle. In a statement to the media, the Belarusian Central Election Commission said Kozulin had no right to attend the congress. Kozulin had applied for registration to the congress as a representative for the Social Democratic Party, but the administrator of the forum rejected his application. Some 2,500 workers and functionaries arrived in Minsk for the two-day congress to discuss the country's next five-year plan. Opposition forces said the assembly was intended to promote Lukashenko. "I wanted to tell the truth about the dictatorship we live in," Kozulin said after being barred from the congress. Belarus news agency Belapan reported that more than 20 Kozulin supporters were detained by police later as they were protesting his detention. The main opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich is also challenging Lukashenko in the polls, as is Liberal Democratic Party leader Sergei Gaidukevich. Milinkevich issued a statement denouncing the police action against Kozulin, saying the elections had now degenerated into a "farce". So far, several opposition figures have been arrested and jailed on various charges. In the last couple of months, hundreds of opposition supporters were arrested during protests against Lukashenko. Ahead of the elections, Lukashenka has ordered agencies to step up security measures to avoid a "color revolution", such as the ones in recent years that succeeded in ousting long-time leaders in Ukraine and Georgia. Western countries and human rights groups have expressed concern that the March elections will not be free and fair. Lukashenka, who is seeking a third term, is expected to win in a landslide and has made it clear he will not tolerate any political dissent. The US and EU say they will consider toughening sanctions against Belarus if the election is not free and fair. (By ISN Security Watch staff and news agencies)