Belarusian presidential candidate beaten, detained after trying to enter conference

Mar 02 2006, 19:40

MINSK, Belarus (AP) - Government security agents on Thursday beat and detained an opposition candidate running in this month's Belarusian presidential election after he tried to enter a conference chaired by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.

A human rights group, meanwhile, said some 60 opposition activists were arrested Thursday throughout the Belarusian capital during the conference. It characterized the arrests as the opening of a campaign to crush the opposition before the March 19 elections in which Lukashenko, who has ruled with an iron hand since 1994, is seeking a new term.

In the evening, about 3,000 opposition supporters gathered at a downtown square in an attempt to hold a protest march. About 1,000 riot police were on the scene and apparently trying to prevent the march.

Lukashenko and other officials allege the opposition is receiving aid from the West with the aim of provoking an uprising after the election, similar to mass demonstrations in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan over the past two years that helped drive longtime leaders out of power.

Sergei Yevtushenko, a representative of Ukraine's Pora movement, one of the driving forces in Ukraine's 2004 "Orange Revolution, said nine Ukrainian journalists and Pora members were detained Thursday and told they would be deported.

Lukashenko told the conference that the opposition leaders are "mercenary opponents of our society and our people."

The opposition "will be dismantled in a tough way after the elections," he said in a four-hour address to the conference, which was frequently interrupted by lengthy applause from delegates.

Alexander Kozulin, the opposition candidate who was beaten and detained, said he tried to attend the conference because "I wanted to tell the truth about the dictatorship we live in."

He and three members of his campaign were beaten, and Kozulin was taken to a police station. His spokeswoman, Nina Shidlovskaya, said that one of the men who had beaten the candidate was the commander of a riot police unit; other assailants were in plainclothes.

Police fired warning shots, then beat and rounded up about 20 Kozulin supporters who gathered at the police station to demand his release. Kozulin's lawyer, Igor Rynkevich, who demanded access to his client, was also detained.

A Reuters television cameraman, Dmitry Modorsky, was beaten and hospitalized. Plainclothes security officers, armed with pistols, also shot into the tire of a car in which a TV cameraman was reportedly trying to escape, to force it to stop.

Belarusian Prosecutor's office spokesman Andrei Shved said Kozulin was given medical assistance. Shved said Kozulin was charged with "hooliganism," and would likely be released pending trial after authorities complete all formalities.

Kozulin's Social-Democratic Party had nominated him to be a delegate to the conference, the All-Belarusian Popular Assembly.

Kozulin, 50, who advocates closer ties with Russia, launched a scathing public attack on Lukashenko while registering his candidacy last month and called on the Constitutional Court to consider the legality of the president's bid.

The head of the Vyasna human rights center, Ales Byalyatsky, said about 60 opposition members were rounded up on Thursday.

"The first shots have already been heard, a total 'cleanup' of the opposition has begun," he said.

Lukashenko over the past dozen years has quashed dissent and maintained his grip on power through votes dismissed as illegitimate by his opponents and Western governments that have dubbed him Europe's last dictator.

He is an open admirer of the Soviet Union and many of his supporters reflect that view.

"Stalin has not been forgotten, and Lukashenko has shown that we can repulse the internal and external enemies of Belarus," said Vladimir Voitsekhovich, a 70-year-old delegate to the conference.

U.S. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley on Thursday decried Belarus' actions against the opposition, saying "we would like (the election) to be free and fair, and a prerequisite of free and fair elections is that you don't beat up opposition candidates or opposition supporters and throw them in jail."

The OSCE, which is deploying an election observer mission in Belarus, also expressed concern about Thursday's arrests.