Belarus opposition leader seized by police

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The Independent Online

The man labelled by the United States as Europe's last dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, has stepped up his Belarus re-election campaign with a series of mass arrests and the beating and detention of one of his key rivals.

Alexander Kozulin, one of three opposition candidates standing against the President, who has ruled Belarus for the past 12 years with a Soviet-style iron fist, was assaulted and jailed, and a further 60 opposition members were reported to have been rounded up.

Mr Lukashenko is expected to win almost total support in the 19 March election that independent monitors fear will be little more than a charade of democracy.

The crackdown took place as Mr Lukashenko accused "radical" opposition figures financed by the West of plotting to overthrow him in an orange revolution-style coup following the ballot.

The fiery autocrat vowed to do everything in his power to prevent such a scenario, promising to "dismantle" the opposition after the elections.

What happened to Mr Kozulin, a 50-year-old former university rector, appeared to be a warning to other opposition politicians. He was set upon by plain-clothes security agents outside a Communist-style party congress chaired by Mr Lukashenko in Minsk, the capital. He and three members of his nationalist Social Democratic Party were attacked, bundled into a van and taken to a nearby police station.

Supporters who gathered outside to demand his release were given short shrift. Police fired warning shots into the air before launching a baton attack. Journalists observing the fracas were beaten up, and security forces opened fire on a car, puncturing a tyre and smashing a window.

Mr Kozulin was charged with hooliganism before eventually being released.

Alexander Milinkevich, the main opposition candidate, said the incident showed Mr Lukashenko was panicking. "The authorities have demonstrated their loutish behaviour and lack of respect for the law and human rights. These elections have turned into a farce. The authorities realise they can't win in a fair fight so have chosen to break the law and repress opponents."

The violence foreshadows a fraught election in which the result appears to be a foregone conclusion - another win for Mr Lukashenko. He altered the constitution so he could stand for a third successive term. The former Soviet collective-farm boss is so confident of retaining control of the country of 10 million people that he has scarcely bothered to campaign.

But yesterday he told the congress that the behind-the-scenes intrigues were taking a toll on his nerves and his health, that there was "enormous" pressure on the security forces, and that the West was agitating to overthrow him and topple what he described as "the last stronghold" between the West and Russia.

He argued that Moscow would not allow his regime to be overthrown "without a fight". Velvet revolutions have toppled Soviet-era regimes in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan in recent years and Mr Lukashenko is clearly anxious not to be next on the list.

He claimed that the Belarussian intelligence service had uncovered 72 radical organisations that had received "hundreds of millions" of dollars from the West to bring him down by falsifying election results.

He showed a resolute face: "If we give up our country without a fight it won't just be our children who will curse us. Our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will remember it. I will never allow this to happen."