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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Security Agents Beat Up a Belarussian Candidate

APSecurity agents, one of them wearing a riot police uniform, foreground left, beating Kozulin in Minsk on Thursday.
MINSK -- Belarussian security agents beat and detained an opposition presidential candidate on Thursday, just two weeks before the country holds an election expected to return President Alexander Lukashenko to power.

Hours later, several thousand opposition supporters massed for an unsanctioned rally in a square in central Minsk. A large contingent of riot police stood guard and pushed back the crowd, which chanted "Freedom."

"Victory will be ours," opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich -- the main presidential challenger to Lukashenko -- told his supporters defiantly before the rally dispersed peacefully.

Alexander Kozulin, the opposition candidate who was beaten and detained after he tried to enter a conference chaired by Lukashenko, said he attempted to attend it because "I wanted to tell the truth about the dictatorship we live in."

He and three members of his campaign were beaten, and Kozulin was taken to a police station. Later in the evening, he was released.

A human rights group, meanwhile, said some 60 opposition activists were arrested Thursday throughout Minsk.

It characterized the arrests as the beginning of a campaign to crush the opposition before the March 19 elections in which Lukashenko is seeking a new term.

U.S. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley on Thursday decried Belarus' actions against the opposition, saying, "We would like [the election] to be free and fair, and a prerequisite of free and fair elections is that you don't beat up opposition candidates or opposition supporters and throw them in jail."

The Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is deploying an election observer mission in Belarus, also expressed concern about Thursday's arrests.

Lukashenko and other officials claim the opposition is receiving aid from the West with the aim of provoking an uprising after the election, similar to mass demonstrations in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan that helped drive longtime leaders out of power over the past two years.

Sergei Yevtushenko, a representative of Ukraine's Pora movement, one of the driving forces in the 2004 Orange Revolution, said nine Ukrainian journalists and Pora members were detained Thursday and told they would be deported.

Lukashenko told the conference in Minsk that the opposition leaders were "mercenary opponents of our society and our people."

The opposition "will be dismantled in a tough way after the elections," he said in a four-hour address to a conference, which was frequently interrupted by lengthy applause from delegates.


Alexander Kozulin

Kozulin's spokeswoman, Nina Shidlovskaya, said that one of the men who had beaten the candidate was the commander of a riot police unit; other assailants were in plainclothes.

Police fired warning shots, then beat and rounded up about 20 Kozulin supporters who gathered at the police station to demand his release. Kozulin's lawyer, Igor Rynkevich, who demanded access to his client, was also detained.

A Reuters television cameraman, Dmitry Modorsky, was beaten and hospitalized. Plainclothes security officers, armed with pistols, also shot the tire of a car in which a television cameraman was reportedly trying to escape, to force it to stop.

Kozulin, whose Social Democratic Party had nominated him as a delegate to the conference, will be charged with hooliganism, prosecutors said.

The head of the Vyasna human rights center, Ales Byalyatsky, said about 60 opposition members were rounded up on Thursday.

"The first shots have already been heard, a total cleanup of the opposition has begun," he said.