Belarus to charge fifth opposition candidate over riots
Belarussian officials were due Thursday to charge a fifth opposition leader who ran against President Alexander Lukashenko with organising post-election riots -- a day after charging four others.
Losing candidate Alexei Mikhalevich was likely to be charged Thursday, his lawyer Oleg Ageyev told AFP. Lawyers for four other candidates said Wednesday they had already been charged.
"The charge of organising mass disturbances has been announced to Vladimir Nekliayev," his lawyer Tamara Fidorenko said. Nekliayev had be hospitalised after being severely beaten before the mass rally.
Candidates Andrei Sannikov, Nikolai Statkevich, and Vitaly Rymashevsky were presented with the same charge, their lawyers told AFP.
All five candidates are being held in a prison controlled by the KGB security service. Two other contenders, Rygor Kostusev and Dmitry Uss, are under investigation and are barred from leaving the country.
In all, 26 people have been identified as suspects in government's criminal investigation into "mass disturbances" in Minsk on December 19, when tens of thousands protested against Lukashenko's re-election in a central square.
Besides seven former candidates the list includes their campaign managers, trustees, and other opposition activists.
If convicted, they would face up to 15 years in prison.
Despite his injuries, Nekliayev was taken from the hospital last week by KGB officers. He suffered a hypertension crisis on Wednesday, his lawyer said.
"If it weren't for his cellmates, he would be dead," she said.
Andrei Sannikov and Vitaly Rymashevsky also sustained injuries during their detention.
Police broke up a rally of tens of thousands of people protesting against the outcome of the election in Minsk and detained over 600 people.
Official election results gave Lukashenko a huge victory with almost 80 percent of the vote.
In Moscow meanwhile, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Wednesday endorsed Lukashenko's election into his fourth term as president, in contrast with the criticism expressed by several European government officials.
"I did not follow these elections but it seems clear from the amount of voters the choice of the Belarussian people should be respected," Putin told journalists, Interfax reported.
In contrast, several Western countries have called the elections fraudulent and condemned the subsequent crackdown on opposition activists.
Even Russian President Dmitry Medvedev took a week to formally congratulate Lukashenko on his victory.
About 300 people, most of whom finished their 10-day prison sentences, were released on Wednesday night.
Belarussian authorities also released 11 Russian citizens, the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement. Russia had summoned the Belarussian ambassador Tuesday to over their arrest.
Lukashenko, once branded Europe's last dictator by Washington, vowed after the elections that he would come down hard on those behind the protests warning the opposition they were "messing with the wrong guy".
© 2010 AFP