Belarus rounds up opposition after Lukashenko victory

20th December 2010, Comments 0 comments

Belarus Monday detained hundreds of protestors, including seven opposition candidates, after smashing a mass rally protesting fraud in the landslide re-election of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Lukashenko, described as the Europe's last dictator by Washington, won Sunday's polls outright with 79.6 percent of the vote on the back of a massive turnout of over 90 percent, the central election commission said.

His nearest rival received less than three percent in elections which the OSCE observer mission said showed the ex-Soviet state was still a "considerable way" from holding democratic elections.

Tens of thousands of outraged voters had braved arrest to gather in central Minsk as the results became official, some trying to storm government buildings and smashing glass doors.

But a reinforced contingent of anti-riot police arrived, encircling the protestors and taking hundreds into waiting police vans. AFP correspondents, one of whom was arrested, saw several protestors beaten with truncheons.

In what appeared to be a massive government crackdown on the opposition, seven of the nine challengers to Lukashenko were arrested by Monday morning, their representatives told AFP.

The United States condemned Belarus for the election day violence, with a US embassy statement saying Washington was "especially concerned over excessive use of force by the authorities".

EU chief diplomat Catherine Ashton condemned the use of violence and urged the immediate release of those detained while German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle described the crackdown as "unacceptable".

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who has had a prickly relationship with Lukashenko, however showed no sign of wanting to intervene over the police action, saying the election "is an internal matter for Belarus".

The Vesna (Spring) human rights support group said its count showed that more than 400 protestors had been detained.

Listening to speeches by five of the candidates condemning the elections, the protestors waved Belarussian and EU flags and shouted "For Freedom!", "Down with the Gulag" and "Long Live Belarus".

"This is where Belarus received its independence in 1991 and today this is where Lukashenko's dictatorship will fall," opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov had declaimed as the crowds swelled.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observer mission said that while the voting itself was smooth, the process deteriorated significantly during the count.

"Observers assessed the vote count as bad and very bad in almost half of all observed polling stations. The count was largely conducted in a non-transparent manner, generally in silence, which undermined its credibility," it said.

Vladimir Nekliayev, another challenger seeking to unseat Lukashenko, was badly wounded in initial clashes and taken to hospital with serious concussion.

His wife told Warsaw-based European Radio for Belarus that Nekliayev was later taken from hospital by the security services.

Belarus police arrested seven of the nine challengers to Lukashenko in all -- Nekliayev, Sannikov, Nikolai Statkevich, Rygor Kastusev, Vitaly Rymanshevsky, Ales Mikhalevich and Dmitry Uss, their parties told AFP.

Authorities opened a criminal investigation into the violence, with some of those rounded up facing up to 15 years in prison for "organising mass disturbances".

The events were reminiscent of the police response to the last elections in 2006, when mass demonstrations were forcefully broken up and opposition leaders sentenced to jail.

Lukashenko, who has ruled the former Soviet republic of 10 million for the past 16 years, has in recent months sought to move Minsk away from Russia's orbit, repeatedly sniping at Moscow, which shot back with a muck-raking television documentary on him called "The Godfather".

He has also sought closer ties with the European Union and relaxed controls on the opposition during the campaign, a move that had appeared aimed at impressing international election observers.


© 2010 AFP

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