Leading opposition candidate Vladimir Neklyayev was beaten by riot police while leading a few hundred of his supporters to the demonstration and was hospitalized, according to his wife. The activists gathered on a central square after polls closed Sunday, but most of the square had been flooded to make an ice skating rink. They then set out for another square where the parliament and government buildings are located.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.
MINSK, Belarus (AP) — A top opposition candidate was beaten unconscious by unknown men while leading a group of his supporters to a rally to protest what the opposition claims was large-scale vote-rigging in Sunday’s presidential election, an aide said. Thousands of people were gathering on a square in central Minsk in defiance of longtime authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko, who had threatened to use force if the opposition went ahead with the election-night protest.
Opposition candidate Vladimir Neklyayev was leading hundreds of his supporters to October Square when he was attacked, aide Anastasia Alexandrovich said. Russia and the European Union are closely monitoring the election, having offered major economic inducements to tilt Belarus in their direction.
Signs that Lukashenko is leaning Westward would be a moral victory for countries that have long criticized his harsh rule and worried about his connections with vehemently anti-West regimes. For Russia, a return to the fold would bolster Moscow’s desire to remain the power-broker in former Soviet regions.
In casting his ballot, Lukashenko expressed confidence that he would win a fourth term. He denounced the planned opposition rally as being led by “bandits and saboteurs” and proclaimed that it would not take place. “Don’t worry, nobody is going to be on the square tonight,” Lukashenko said while voting with his 6-year-old son, Kolya. But thousands turned out.
“How can we counter a dictator who created a police state in the past 16 years?” said 21-year-old student Artur Makayonak, who was among the activists heading to the square. “Only our protests, our strive for freedom and a peaceful rally.” Opposition candidates and rights activists said five senior campaign workers and 27 opposition activists have been detained since Saturday. Police refused to comment.
Neklyayev had condemned the detentions. “When the representatives of one of the candidates get arrested on the orders of another candidate, that cannot be called an election,” he said Sunday afternoon.
Nearly a quarter of the 7 million registered voters went to the polls in five days of early voting last week, according to the Central Election Commission. The opposition and election observers say early voting allows for ballot stuffing as ballot boxes are poorly guarded and voting precincts are poorly monitored.