Belarus yesterday detained hundreds of protesters, including seven opposition candidates, after smashing a mass rally protesting fraud in the landslide re-election of authoritarian Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Described as the Europe’s last dictator by the US, Lukashenko received 79.6 percent of the vote in Sunday’s polls on the back of a massive turnout of more than 90 percent, the central election commission said. His nearest rival received less than 3 percent of the ballots.
Tens of thousands of outraged voters braved arrest to gather in central Minsk as the results became official, some trying to storm government buildings and smashing glass doors.
However, a reinforced contingent of anti-riot police descended on Independence Square, taking hundreds into waiting police vans. Correspondents, one of whom was arrested, saw several protesters beaten with truncheons.
In what appeared to be a massive government crackdown on the opposition, seven of the nine challengers to Lukashenko had been arrested by the police by yesterday morning, their representatives said.
The US 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.”
An correspondent who visited a jail in Minsk said about 150 protesters were detained there alone and dozens of their relatives waited outside for news only to be told to come back in the morning.
The Vesna (Spring) human rights support group said its count showed that more than 400 had been detained.
All nine of the challengers had earlier alleged fraud and summoned a mass rally in defiance of warnings from Lukashenko, who had said flatly as he cast his ballot that “no one will be on the square tonight.”
Listening to speeches by five of the candidates condemning the elections, 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 said.
However, teams of anti-riot police repelled the demonstrators, forming a human chain to prevent them from moving further and keeping them several meters away from the government building.
Vladimir Nekliayev, another challenger seeking to unseat Lukashenko, was badly wounded in the initial clashes where police let off noise grenades and clubbed several people with truncheons.
He was taken to hospital and his entourage said he had suffered a serious concussion. His wife told Warsaw-based European Radio for Belarus that he was later taken from hospital by the security services.
Authorities opened a criminal investigation into the violence, with some of those rounded up facing up to 15 years in prison for “organizing mass disturbances.”
“No one will go unpunished,” Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted Belarussian Interior Minister Anatoly Kuleshov as saying.
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 EU and relaxed controls on the opposition during the campaign, a move that appeared aimed at impressing international election observers.