Belarus detains dozens at opposition protests ahead of election

by Vitaly Kalinovsky
Belarus riot police officers detain an opposition supporter at gathering Friday -- the second day of such protests -- for candidates seeking to challenge President Alexander Lukashenko in August polls

Around 140 people have been detained during opposition protests in Belarus, the Vyasna rights group said Saturday, as President Alexander Lukashenko tightens a crackdown on critics ahead of polls.

In power since 1994, Lukashenko, 65, is seeking a sixth term in the August presidential election.

Opposition figures have fought hard to get on the ballot and a number of opponents -- including Lukashenko's strongest election rival Viktor Babaryko -- have been jailed in the runup to the August 9 vote.

Friday was the last day for candidates seeking to challenge the incumbent to gather ballot-access signatures from supporters.

Lukashenko's rivals were expected Saturday to hand in their registration papers to be allowed to run.

On Friday evening people lined the streets in the capital Minsk and other cities to support Lukashenko's critics.

Valery Tsepkalo, a popular would-be opposition candidate, joined those protests but police moved in to break them up.

As a result, around 140 people -- including 80 in Minsk -- were detained, the Vyasna rights group said on Saturday.

Detentions also took place in Bobruisk, Vitebsk, Brest, Mogilev and other cities.

Five people including a minor have been beaten, the rights group said.

A number of journalists with foreign media outlets were detained, including a correspondent for Radio Free Europe's Belarusian service who was led away by plain-clothed officers while making a live video.

Some people were released late Friday while others were waiting for a court hearing.

A freelance video journalist on assignment for Reuters new agency was among those detained in Minsk before being released, said an agency spokeswoman.

"The detention of large numbers of journalists and peaceful protesters across Belarus this evening is unacceptable," tweeted the UK embassy in Minsk.

The US embassy urged Lukashenko's government to "uphold its international commitments to respect fundamental freedoms."

- 'Anyone but him' -

Although relatively modest, the protests against Lukashenko who has brooked no dissent during his nearly three decades in power are unusual, analysts say.

"Society is polarised," independent analyst Valery Karbalevich told AFP, adding many wanted Lukashenko to quit power.

"People's slogan today is: 'Anyone but him.'"

Bucking expectations, a number of opposition activists collected at least 100,000 signatures from supporters to be eligible to stand in the election.

Lukashenko's main rival Babaryko, a 56-year-old former banker, has collected 435,000 signatures, his aides say.

Babaryko was arrested on Thursday on suspicion of financial crimes, with Lukashenko announcing the next day his government had foiled a foreign plot to stage a popular uprising in Belarus.

Babaryko formerly headed Belgazprombank, a Belarus subsidiary of Russian energy giant Gazprom.

A total of around 20 people have been detained in connection with investigations linked to Belgazprombank. Authorities have claimed Babaryko is in cahoots with "puppeteers" from Moscow.

The detention of Babaryko came after authorities jailed other critics including prominent opposition politician Mikola Statkevich, who is not allowed to contest the vote, and popular vlogger Sergei Tikhanovsky.

Tikhanovsky, 41, has particularly stood out, coining an insult for Lukashenko -- the "cockroach" --- and a catchy new slogan -- "Stop the cockroach."

Since then many Lukashenko critics have protested with flip-flops in their hands.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, an international election and war monitor, has not recognised any polls in Belarus as free and fair since 1995.

Belarus riot police officers detain an opposition supporter at gathering Friday -- the second day of such protests -- for candidates seeking to challenge President Alexander Lukashenko in August polls