Entire print run of largest opposition newspaper confiscated
MINSK, Belarus (AP) -- Authorities arrested nearly two dozen opposition activists and confiscated the entire print run of the largest independent newspaper, as Belarusians cast early ballots for Sunday's presidential vote, which the opposition fears will be rigged in favor of the authoritarian incumbent.
After pushing through a widely contested referendum scrapping presidential term limits, Alexander Lukashenko -- branded by Western nations as "Europe's last dictator" -- is seeking a third term as president of the ex-Soviet republic. He is widely expected to win.
Some 20 opposition activists were detained in nine towns and cities nationwide Tuesday, said Ales Belyatski, leader of the rights center Vyasna. Several were immediately sentenced to jail terms ranging from seven to 15 days on charges of organizing unsanctioned demonstrations and of hooliganism.
Earlier, three supporters and aides to the main opposition candidate, Alexander Milinkevich, were detained, including a district campaign organizer who was charged with "swearing." More than 300 activists have been arrested to date, Belyatski said.
A deputy head of the opposition wing of an ethnic Polish group and the editor of a Polish-language newspaper were detained and jailed for seven and 10 days, respectively, Union of Poles of Belarus leader Angelica Boris said.
Opposition leaders have called for peaceful protests if votes are counted fraudulently, but authorities' ban on any rallies on Sunday has potentially set the stage for violent confrontation. The opposition contends that early voting allows for falsifications including ballot-stuffing at unguarded, unmonitored polling stations, and multiple voting.
A university student, who identified himself only as Andrei out of fear of retribution, said students had been warned by school authorities "that if we don't vote early, there could be problems." He said he voted for "a free and European future," but declined to say which candidate he supported.
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 had urged Belarusians not to take part in early voting "because there your votes will simply be stolen."
Central Election Commission official Nikolai Lazovik denied that: "This procedure is set out by the law, and there's nothing frightening about it."
According to official statistics, as many as 30 percent of voters usually take part in early balloting. Opposition parties have been denied of virtually any representation on election commissions that monitor the vote.
Nearly 7 million Belarusians are eligible to vote.
"The vote of the people doesn't need any external recognition," Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov said, dismissing concerns voiced by Western countries about the vote.
The chief editor of the country's largest independent newspaper, meanwhile, said the paper's latest 54,000-issue print run was confiscated by authorities at the border with Russia. It was the second time in just over a week that Narodnaya Volya, which is published in a neighboring Russian city to avoid official shutdown, had its print run confiscated.
"The elections are being conducted under the condition of complete information isolation for the voters, and authorities aren't even making any attempts to create the illusion of the free press," editor Svetlana Kalinka told AP.
The Ministry of Information refused to comment.
Also at the Russian border, security officials confiscated 65,000 copies of a fake issue of the main state newspaper, Sovietskaya Belorussiya, that contained derisory material about Lukashenko, Sovietskaya Belorussiya editor Pavel Yakubovich told AP. He said an official with the opposition Belarusian Popular Front who was in a van with the papers was arrested.
At least 3,000 people, meanwhile, turned out for a Milinkevich campaign rally at stadium in the southern city of Gomel, some shouting "Freedom!"
Lukashenko has ruled the nation of 10 million with an iron fist since 1994, quashing dissent and opposition and maintaining his grip on power through votes dismissed as illegitimate by his critics.
A team of European Parliament members picked to observe the election gave up its efforts Tuesday to travel to Belarus after being denied entry visas.