Election crackdown in Belarus

Opposition candidate who led march will face charges

2nd may be accused

March 30, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MOSCOW -- Prosecutors in Belarus said yesterday that 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 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 Alexander G. Lukashenko, who is often called Europe's last dictator.

It was also an unmistakable snub to the West. The United States and the European Union have demanded the release of the candidate, Alexander V. 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 Saturday as he led a march toward a detention center where opposition members are being held, faces charges of organizing group actions and hooliganism, Belarus' federal prosecutor said, according to the Belapan news agency. 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 before his arrest, he claimed that an honest count would show he received roughly a third of votes cast. The next day, he led a group of demonstrators who were attacked by an elite riot police unit, SOBR, which has been widely accused of human rights abuses.

His wife, Irina Kazulin, said the charges were retaliation for his daring to challenge Lukashenko's authoritarian rule. "It is personal revenge," she said by telephone. "It is purely a political case."

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

Prosecutors also said they were considering charges against Alexandr 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 he expected that he would be jailed, and that the announcement yesterday was part of a mounting campaign against him. "At first, it is usually a PR action," he said. "It is only beginning."

He 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 Belarus' prosecutors not to proceed with charges.

David J. Kramer, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, said that officials involved in these cases risked personal sanctions in the West.

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

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