Belarus candidate charged with hooliganism

ISN SECURITY WATCH (Monday, 6 March: 10.00 CET) - Prosecutors in Belarus have opened a criminal investigation against an opposition candidate who is challenging President Aleksandar Lukashenko in 19 March elections, charging him with "malicious hooliganism".

Aleksandar Kozulin, who was allegedly beaten and briefly detained by security forces last Thursday, has been charged with smashing a portrait of Lukashenka while in detention at a police station.

He is also accused of trying to stage an unsanctioned news conference.

In a Sunday statement, the prosecution said Kozulin could face a maximum sentence of six years in prison for "malicious hooliganism".

The international community and human rights groups have condemned Kozulin's arrest and urged the government to guarantee the personal safety of all presidential candidates.

Kozulin, the leader of the Social Democratic Party, was detained along with three other party members, when he was attempting to register for a meeting of delegates to be addressed by the president. He reportedly was assaulted by plain-clothed police who dragged him from the hall and forced him into an unmarked vehicle.

Reporters Without Borders, the international non-governmental media rights organization, said on Sunday that police had beaten at least nine reporters who were covering Kozulin's arrest.

The group said at least two of the journalists needed hospitalization and that some of the journalists were temporarily detained by police.

The main opposition leader, Alexander Milinkevich, is also challenging Lukashenko in the polls, along with Liberal Democratic Party leader Sergei Gaidukevich.

So far, several opposition figures have been arrested and jailed on various charges. In the last couple of months, hundreds of opposition supporters have been arrested for participating in anti-Lukashenko protests.

Ahead of the elections, Lukashenka has ordered agencies boost security to prevent a "color revolution" such as the ones in recent years that succeeded in ousting long-time leaders in Ukraine and Georgia.

Lukashenko, who has ruled what the US has called "Europe's last dictatorship" since 1994, is widely expected to win the poll.

(By ISN Security Watch staff, RFE/RL, Moscow Times, news agencies)