Challenger to Belarus President Beaten, Arrested Ahead of Vote

Security Service Says Opposition Was Planning Armed Coup

By Peter Finn Washington Post Foreign Service

MOSCOW, March 2 -- An opposition candidate running in this month's presidential election in Belarus was beaten and arrested Thursday when he tried to attend a conference being chaired by President Alexander Lukashenko, the longtime authoritarian ruler of the former Soviet republic, according to opposition activists and journalists who witnessed the incident.

A local human rights group said 60 opposition activists were arrested Thursday as the atmosphere in the country has become increasingly charged in advance of the March 19 vote.

The country's security service, which is still called the KGB, said this week that the opposition was planning an armed coup in cooperation with foreign powers. At Thursday's conference in Minsk, the capital, Lukashenko railed against "dark forces," particularly the United States, that he said were aligned against him and threatening the country's stability.

"They cannot teach us human rights. They have spilled blood all over the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yugoslavia, millions of people are dying," Lukashenko said.

The president is seeking a third term after a referendum in 2004 changed the constitution to allow him to run again. Western governments condemned that vote as rigged, and opposition leaders charge that this month's election will also be fixed. They have promised street protests to follow the vote on the president's rule.

Lukashenko, 51, said Thursday that the opposition "will be dismantled in a tough way after the elections." The former collective farm manager came to power in 1994, and critics often call him "Europe's last dictator."

Alexander Kozulin, 50, a former academic who heads the Social Democratic Party, is one of two candidates challenging Lukashenko. He tried to register as a delegate at Thursday's All-Belarusan People's Assembly, essentially a political rally for Lukashenko by 2,500 handpicked delegates.

According to opposition activists and journalists, guards declined to register or admit Kozulin. He refused to leave, and a brawl ensued when security converged on the candidate and his supporters. Kozulin and three of his campaign workers were bundled into a police van and taken away. Police later said that Kozulin smashed a portrait of Lukashenko at the police station where he was being held.

Kozulin was arrested because he was disorderly and pushed a policeman, according to Nikolai Starovoitov, Minsk's first deputy prosecutor. Officials said the candidate would be charged with hooliganism. He was released Thursday evening.

A police commander involved in the altercation told a correspondent in Belarus for the ITAR-Tass news agency that Kozulin "offended me, and I talked to him in a masculine way."

The other opposition candidate, Alexander Milinkevich, who is backed by a coalition of political parties, said the arrest showed that the election was turning into a "farce." A fourth candidate on the ballot is allied with Lukashenko.

The arrest drew international condemnation. "A prerequisite of free and fair elections is that you don't beat up opposition candidates or opposition supporters and throw them in jail," said Stephen J. Hadley, President Bush's national security adviser.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is monitoring the election, said it was concerned that the arrest marked "a serious deterioration in the campaign atmosphere."

Outside the police station where Kozulin was being held, police fired warning shots and beat up and detained about 20 of the candidate's supporters, opposition leaders said. A local journalist and a cameraman with the Reuters news agency were also beaten and hospitalized. Plainclothes police officers fired on the car of another journalist, eyewitnesses said.