Belarus probes opposition presidential candidate

MINSK (Reuters) - Prosecutors in Belarus on Friday opened a criminal case against an opposition candidate for breaking a portrait of President Alexander Lukashenko, whom he will challenge in a presidential election this month.

Academic Alexander Kozulin, 50, one of two opposition candidates, was beaten and detained by plainclothes police on Thursday. He is accused of breaking the portrait while in detention at a police station.

He is also accused of trying to stage an unsanctioned news conference at the state press center.

"These episodes have been united into a single case under the article 'malicious hooliganism'. He can face a maximum sentence of six years," an official at the prosecutors' office told Reuters.

Kozulin, who was not available for comment, is one of two opposition candidates trying to unseat Lukashenko, in power since 1994 and accused in the West of curbing freedoms and muzzling the press, in the March 19 vote.

Lukashenko is heavily favored in the contest. He remains genuinely popular in the Belarussian provinces, where he is widely seen as guaranteeing the country's relative stability -- a marked contrast to many other ex-Soviet states.

He may face Western sanctions if the election is denounced as unfair, but has vowed to do whatever is necessary to prevent what he calls Western-inspired subversion of his administration.

Belarus's normally timid opposition turned out in force on Thursday at a rally organized without official permission, with 3,000 demonstrators -- their largest number in at least two years -- congregating to chant slogans.

Lukashenko said Kozulin was trying to make a deal with him to secure a prime minister post after the elections

"It is not a situation when we can trade over the posts. I am not going to trade," Lukashenko was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying.

"I want to underline once more that I have understood they battle against each other, for money, for power, who will be the leader of the so-called opposition...," he said in a reference to the two opposition candidates.

Lukashenko has tried to undermine opposition politicians by portraying them as puppets and spies of Western governments.

Belarus's small and divided opposition has tried to unite behind a single opposition figure but after months of talks some forces decided to back Kozulin, while the main opposition groups chose to support Alexander Milinkevich, who was traveling in western Belarus on Friday.