Opposition leader jailed

Milinkevich to serve 15 days in Belarus for denouncing president at rally

April 28, 2006|By ERIKA NIEDOWSKI | ERIKA NIEDOWSKI,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

MOSCOW -- The opposition politician who last month led protests against the re-election victory of President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus was ordered jailed yesterday a day after denouncing the president at a rally in the Belarusian capital.

A court in Minsk ordered that Aleksandr Milinkevich serve 15 days in prison for participating in what it deemed an unsanctioned rally during which he called for Lukashenko's impeachment and vowed to "depose this regime" through peaceful protests.

During an appearance in court yesterday, Milinkevich said he had done nothing wrong and said his conviction was motivated by politics.

"This is a political action, a political sentence," he told the court during an hour-long hearing, according to news reports. "Leaders of leading political parties are behind bars."

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Milinkevich's detention "reprehensible." The European Union called for his immediate release.

With Milinkevich's jailing, the two leading opposition candidates who challenged Lukashenko in the March 19 election are in government custody. Aleksandr Kozulin, former rector of Belarusian State University, was arrested last month during a march in Minsk demanding the release of activists detained for setting up tents on a central square in protest of the election results.

Kozulin, who has remained in custody, could face up to six years in prison on a charge of "hooliganism."

Lukashenko has increasingly cracked down on the opposition since becoming Belarus' president in 1994. Last month, according to the official tally by the Central Election Commission, Lukashenko won a third term with 83 percent of the vote, while Milinkevich came in second with 6 percent.

But the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the election was undemocratic, and marred by widespread harassment of the opposition, including the candidates, their supporters and the media.

The White House said the campaign had been conducted in a "climate of fear" and expressed support for the opposition's call for a new vote, while the E.U. extended a ban on visas for Belarusian officials to include Lukashenko and several dozen others.

On Wednesday, to mark the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster in neighboring Ukraine, Milinkevich and his supporters initially tried to gather in a central square in Minsk, though they had been denied permission to assemble there. They marched through the streets to the city's outskirts, where they had been told they could rally.

According to news reports, Milinkevich initially thought he had been detained because the march had not been approved. Later, he was told that the rally itself, which drew a crowd of 7,000 to 10,000 people, was deemed illegal. Several other members of the opposition were also jailed for taking part in the rally. The chairman of the Belarusian Communist Party, Sergei Kalykakin, who also served as Milinkevich's campaign manager, was given 14 days' imprisonment.

Meanwhile, another leading opposition politician, Anatoly Lebedko, head of the United Civil Party, described being detained and beaten up by Belarusian security police on the day of the rally.

Lebedko's secretary, Oksana Krishchanovich, said yesterday that Lebedko had been pulled from his car, handcuffed and beaten, then taken to the headquarters of the KGB, where he was questioned for five hours.

She called the latest arrests, including that of Milinkevich, "authorities' hysteria."

Also yesterday, the Foreign Ministry of Russia, which has said Lukashenko's victory was free and fair, said in a statement that a report on the presidential election prepared by the Council of Europe, which is seeking to impose sanctions on Belarus, was "biased."

"There is no doubt that the election results were a reflection of the sovereign will of the nation, which should be respected, and that the elections emphasized the republic's aspirations towards a democratic development," the statement said, according to the news agency Interfax.

erika.niedowski@baltsun.com

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