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Belarus: 7 presidential candidates face 15 years

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Dec. 22, 2010, 11:21 p.m. | Russia and former Soviet Union — by Associated Press

British actor Ian McKellen, right, talks to other protesters as they gather for a rally across the street from the Belarusian embassy in London, Tuesday Dec. 21, 2010.
© AP

Seven presidential candidates who ran against the country's authoritarian leader could face up to 15 years in prison and one was beaten so badly in the election's aftermath he is unable to walk, his lawyer and a human rights organization said. Pavel Sapelko said Wednesday he suspects his client, Andrei Sannikov, has a broken leg, yet he was refused an X-ray.

"He feels very bad and looks very bad," Sapelko told the Associated Press. Sannikov received the most votes among the opposition candidates — 2.4 percent, compared with winner Alexander Lukashenko's 79.6 percent.

Sannikov is one of among seven candidates who could face up to 15 years in prison in the wake of postelection violence and massive arrests, Belarusian human rights organization Vesna said Wednesday.

Lawyer Tamara Sidorenko said her client Vladimir Neklyayev, another prominent challenger, was also beaten as he tried to lead a column of supporters to the protest in central Minsk on Sunday night.

He was taken to a hospital, and an aide said men in civilian clothing wrapped him in a blanket on his hospital bed and carried him away as his wife screamed. Sidorenko said she has not been allowed to visit him since.

The former Soviet state's security service, which is still called the KGB, has filed charges against 20 top opposition figures, including the seven candidates, for organizing mass disturbances, said Ales Belyatsky of Vesna. KGB spokesman Alexander Antonovich declined comment.

Overall, some 700 people were arrested after Sunday's election that returned Lukashenko to a fourth term in office. International monitors called the election fraudulent.

Two of the arrested candidates were later released, but both of them — Grigory Kostusyev and Dmitry Uss — were summoned to KGB offices for further questioning on Wednesday.

Lukashenko, often called Europe's last dictator, has been in power in Belarus for more than 16 years. He exercises overwhelming control over the politics, industry and media in this nation of 10 million, which borders Russia, Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic nations. The repression has been an embarrassment to the European Union, which had offered 3 billion euros ($3.9 billion) in aid if the elections were judged to be free and fair.

In a brief telephone interview with the Associated Press, Kostusyev said "the regime has shown its true essence."

"We've been thrown 10 years into the past," he added.

Others charged include Sannikov's wife Irina Khalip and the editor of an opposition website affiliated with Sannikov, Nataliya Radina, according to Vesna. The other arrested candidates are Nikolai Statkevich, Vitaly Rymashevsky and Ales Mikhalevich.

At least 25 journalists were also detained during or after the Sunday's rally, and several of them were sentenced to up to 15 days in prison for "participation in an illegal demonstration," a press freedom group said Wednesday.

Reporters Without Borders said two of the detained reporters face charges of "organizing or participating in a public order disturbance" punishable by up to 15 years in jail.

Also Wednesday, the Belarusian parliament ratified an agreement to create a "unified economic space" with Russia and Kazakhstan in what some observers regard as Moscow's attempt to shore up influence among neighboring countries.

Preliminary agreement on the zone was reached 10 days before the election. As part of that agreement, Russia said it would drop tariffs on oil exported to Belarus, a concession that significantly strengthened Lukashenko's hand.

Belarus' quasi-Soviet state-dominated economy depends on below-market Russian oil and gas. In recent years, Lukashenko had quarreled with Moscow over its raising hydrocarbon prices and in the presidential campaign period he frequently criticized Russia.

However, after the dropping of the oil tariffs — an agreement estimated to be worth some $4 billion a year — his tone changed markedly.
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