Wed, Dec 22, 2010 - Page 6 News List

Belarus jails 600 for election protests

AFP, MINSK

Belarus yesterday jailed 600 demonstrators detained during a mass rally against the re-election of Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, defying strong Western condemnation of the bloody crackdown.

Police officials said the protesters would be held for up to 15 days while prosecutors probed their potential involvement in “organizing mass disturbances” — a crime that carries a sentence of up to 15 years.

“It is not a fact that all of them will be released after 15 days,” Minsk police spokesman Alexander Lastovsky said. “All of them will be checked for playing a role in the organization of mass disturbances. We have enough photo and video evidence.”

The official did not specify how many people faced the more serious charges.

Lukashenko vowed on Monday to come down hard on all those taking part in Sunday’s unsanctioned rally against his regime.

“That is it,” Lukashenko declared in a nationally televised press conference. “Our country will have no more senseless, muddle-headed democracy.”

“I warned you,” he said. “Kids — you are messing with the wrong guy.”

Lukashenko was re-elected to a fourth term on Sunday with nearly 80 percent of the ballot on Soviet-style turnout of more than 90 percent. His nearest challenger received less than 3 percent of the vote in a poll that the challengers vowed to contest even before the results became official.

Seven of Lukashenko’s nine rivals in the election have been arrested in what appears to be a massive crackdown on the opposition, with five candidates beaten up by riot police.

At least two of them were reported on Monday to be undergoing interrogation at the country’s KGB headquarters in Minsk, and there was no immediate word as to what charges they faced.

The violence came despite signals in the previous months that Lukashenko was seeking to smooth his country’s frayed relations with both the EU and Russia.

EU officials promised to offer Belarus up to US$3.5 billion in loans should it stage a free and fair vote. And Russia resolved most of its trade conflicts with its neighbor in the run-up to the vote.

While Russia refused to condemn the violence, with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev calling it an “internal matter” for Belarus, Minsk was roundly admonished by both the White House and the EU.

“The United States strongly condemns the actions that the government of Belarus has taken to undermine the democratic process,” US President Barack Obama’s spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a statement.

The EU’s top diplomat Catherine Ashton called on Belarus to “immediately release” the opposition leaders.

Officials said the authorities were in fact being lenient and let “a lot of people” go without prosecution.

“We released a lot of people — minors, and those with two children,” the top Minsk police official, Leonid Farmagei, told Interfax news agency. “We released several foreign nationals, including journalists.”

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