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Arrests Climb to 1,000 in Crackdown on Belarus Protesters

March 29, 2006|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Arrests in demonstrations since Belarus' elections last week have reached at least 1,000, lawyers and human rights activists said Tuesday, and jailed Belarus presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin has been notified that he could face six years in prison.

"This is the first time we've seen such mass arrests in Belarus. I can remember nothing of this kind in the past," said Ales Byalyatsky, head of the human rights organization Vyasna-96.

Kozulin, former rector of Belarus State University and one of two candidates who challenged President Alexander G. Lukashenko in the March 19 election, is being investigated under a new law that imposes heavy penalties for serious violations of public order, his lawyer, Igor Rynkevich, said in a telephone interview.

He is also being investigated for threatening the president in connection with a statement he made Saturday during a postelection protest rally, which ended in a violent police crackdown and hundreds of arrests.

In that speech, Rynkevich said, Kozulin declared that if law enforcement authorities used weapons against demonstrators, "Let Lukashenko leave the last bullet for himself."

The opposition candidate also faces possible charges of hooliganism in connection with his unsuccessful attempt to enter a public meeting hall during the campaign and tear a portrait of Lukashenko from the wall.

"Of course, everyone must understand that these are not just charges in an ordinary case. This is quite clearly a political case," his wife, Irina Kozulina, said in a telephone interview.

"They want to unconditionally remove the leader of today's opposition, and they want to intimidate other members of the opposition -- and they are," she said.

Kozulin is said to be suffering intense back pain from the beating he sustained during his arrest. He was repeatedly clubbed and kicked, then forced to kneel handcuffed in the back of a police van with his head on the seat for an extended period, Rynkevich said.

"Several times they cocked their guns, putting bullets into the barrels over his head, and saying, 'You're in for it. You lost. And there's a lot of problems in store for you,' " he said.

Rynkevich said he was being detained for swearing in public when Kozulin was arrested.

The case against the candidate is in the investigative stage, authorities said, and a decision is expected this week on what charges Kozulin will face.

"We are extremely troubled by this situation. It is unacceptable what the regime does to presidential candidates. It doesn't fit any imaginable legal framework," Byalyatsky said.

Lukashenko, appearing at a state conference Tuesday, said the public had expressed its confidence in the government and the police. In a highly contested vote count, he received a reported 82.6%, compared with 6% for the leading opposition candidate, Alexander Milinkevich, and 2% for Kozulin.

"All political battles are over. Order has been restored in this country, as was the case before, despite separate outbreaks," Lukashenko said in remarks carried by the Belarusian news agency, Belapan.

Russian television said Lukashenko also ordered Belarus officials to streamline bureaucratic red tape and remove portraits of himself -- often criticized as part of the cult of personality that is said to be emerging around him -- from the walls of government offices.

Human rights leaders say that several foreign journalists are among those being detained and that some prisoners are being held in extremely crowded conditions with inadequate food.

Activists launched a hunger strike to protest crowded conditions in one suburban detention facility.

"There are many students among the detainees, and it's not clear what will happen to them," Byalyatsky said. "Will they be allowed to continue their studies, or will they be expelled?"

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