Belarus to charge defeated candidate

By C.J. Chivers The New York Times

MOSCOW Prosecutors in Belarus on Wednesday said they would bring criminal charges against a defeated presidential candidate who led an anti-government march last week and that they were considering lesser charges against a second candidate who had organized a rally.

The announcement, during which prosecutors also said the police had arrested more than 500 demonstrators last week, continued the crackdown on the opposition to President Aleksandr Lukashenko.

It was also an unmistakable snub to the West.

The United Sates and the European Union have demanded the release of the candidate, Aleksandr Kazulin, and of demonstrators arrested last week during peaceful protests against Lukashenko's re-election, which the opposition says was a fraud.

Kazulin, who was beaten by the police and arrested on March 25 as he led a march toward a detention center where opposition members are held, faces charges of organizing group actions and hooliganism, Belarus's federal prosecutor said, according to the news agency BelaPAN. The first charge could carry a prison term of up to six years.

Kazulin received 2.2 percent of the officially tabulated vote on March 19.

In an interview with The New York Times before his arrest, he asserted that an honest count would show that he had received roughly a third of votes cast. He led the march the next day, which was attacked by members of an elite riot police unit, SOBR, which has been widely accused of human rights abuses.

Kazulin's wife, Irina, said the charges were retaliation for daring to challenge

Lukashenko's authoritarian rule.

"It is personal revenge," she said by telephone. "It is purely a political case."

She also said that her husband had been kicked and beaten and that he had a back injury that had not been examined by a doctor. The prosecutor said Aleksandr Kazulin had not filed a complaint. Neither claim could be independently verified.

Prosecutors also said they were considering charges against Aleksandr Milinkevich, who received 6.1 percent in the official vote count and who has called for peaceful acts of public assembly. The potential charge, disturbing public order, could carry a sentence of 15 days.

Milinkevich, in a telephone interview as he prepared for meetings in Poland, said that he expected to be jailed and that the announcement Wednesday was part of the mounting pressure against him.

"At first it is usually a PR action," he said. "It is only beginning."

Milinkevich added that the government's pressure was counterproductive.

"I think they would very much like me to emigrate, fearing imprisonment, but I am not going to do that," he said. "The more repression they bring against the protesters and the organizers of protests, the more protests they will have. They are losing their supporters."

The United States warned prosecutors in Belarus not to proceed with charges. David Kramer, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, said officials involved in these cases risk personal sanctions in the West.

"We urge the prosecutor general and those who work for him to be very careful in pursuing prosecution against those who are simply expressing their political views," Kramer said by telephone. "The United States and the European Union are paying very close attention, and taking names."

The European Union is expected to discuss sanctions against Belarussian officials when foreign ministers of its 25 members meet April 10. The United States, which has its own process for applying sanctions, including bans on travel and freezing on assets, has been adding names of Belarussian officials on an almost daily basis since last week,

Kramer said.

Belarussian officials have scoffed at threats of sanctions. The prosecutor general, Pyotr Miklashevich, showed no signs of relenting at his appearance on Tuesday.

"All the organizers of the unsanctioned actions, their active participants, violators of public order, will be brought to administrative or criminal responsibility in accordance with the law," he said.