Monday, March 27, 2006

Belarus isolates opposition leader

Any resemblance with Venezuelan reality is just pure coincidence.

Recommended to read while playing the national anthem of Belarus.

By C.J. Chivers The New York Times

MONDAY, MARCH 27, 2006

MOSCOW: A detained opposition leader in Belarus faces a criminal charge and has been denied prison visits by a doctor and a lawyer, according to his wife. Minsk, the Belarussian capital, has fallen quiet after a violent police crackdown against anti-government demonstrators.

Alexander Kazulin, who had challenged the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, in an election earlier this month, was seized Saturday when riot police officers with batons clashed with a column of peaceful protesters who were marching to a prison where opposition members have been jailed.

Kazulin was held Sunday at a detention center well outside of Minsk on a charge of hooliganism, said his wife, Irina Kazulin. The charge can carry penalties ranging from a fine to several years in prison.

Irina Kazulin said she visited the jail, but was not allowed to see her husband or speak with him by phone. She said she demanded that he be examined by a doctor and allowed to consult with a lawyer, but was told by a prison official that there would be no visits before Monday.

"Human rights do not work on Sunday in Belarus," she said by telephone. She said she was not sure whether her husband had been injured.

Opposition members said that at least three people were in serious medical condition with either skull fractures or spinal injuries after allegedly being beaten by the police when the march was broken up on Saturday.

One man with a skull injury had been hovering near death, but had survived thus far, said Alexei Shein, a spokesman for Alexander Milinkevich, the principal challenger to Lukashenko.

"Thank God this man is still alive," Shein said of the injured demonstrator, who was one of at least two men seen lying immobile on the street after lines of officers from the SOBR, a special rapid- reaction force that has been widely accused of extensive human rights abuses, clashed with the marchers.

The march was the third opposition event of the day. The police blocked demonstrators, estimated at 6,000 strong, from reaching a rally planned in October Square, punching and kicking many of them as they tried to push through the police lines or as they blocked traffic, and ultimately clearing the sidewalks with advancing formations that pummeled people in their path.

A rally then assembled at Yanka Kupala Park, which the police videotaped, but did not break up. At Alexander Kazulin's urging, several hundred demonstrators left for a march to the prison, during which the worst violence of the day occurred.

Austria, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, said in a statement Sunday that the Union "is appalled by the violence used against demonstrators" and called for the release of Kazulin and the other protesters.

Such statements by the West have had little visible effect on the Belarussian government, which retains many of the features of the Soviet police state.

Lukashenko, whose landslide re- election March 19 has been declared invalid by the West because of charges of wide-scale rigging and abuses of state power, has used police sweeps, mass arrests and violence to try to quell the unrest. Russia, his closest ally, has offered him unequivocal support.

For the first time during Lukashenko's 12 years of rule, however, demonstrators have defied the police and vowed to carry out more peaceful actions in the face of arrests, state violence and expulsions from universities or jobs. Another rally is set for April 26, the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

The authorities have not released arrest figures or provided information about the injured, making it difficult to assess the extent of the arrests, or the conditions and the identities of some of the detained.

Among those thought to be held are a small number of journalists from Russia, Canada and Western Europe, as well as foreign demonstrators, including Ukrainians, Poles and at least one man from Ireland, who was interviewed at a small protest camp.

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