Belarusian authorities arrest activists, take newspapers as early voting begins
MINSK, Belarus – Belarusian authorities arrested nearly two dozen opposition activists and confiscated the entire print run of the country’s largest independent newspaper Tuesday as Belarusians cast early ballots for Sunday’s presidential election.The opposition fears the vote will be rigged in favor of authoritarian incumbent Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet republic with an iron fist since 1994 and has been branded “Europe’s last dictator” by Western nations. After pushing through a widely contested referendum scrapping presidential term limits, Lukashenko is expected to win a third term.The number of opposition activists arrested during the election campaign rose to more than 300 Tuesday as more than 20 opposition supporters and aides to the main opposition candidate were detained, human rights officials said. Most were charged with organizing illegal demonstrations or “petty hooliganism.”Rights activists said a district campaign chief to the main opposition challenger, Alexander Milinkevich, had been arrested in one city and charged with “swearing.”Ales Belyatski of the Vyasna human rights center said more than 300 activists had been arrested so far.The chief editor of the country’s largest newspaper said its latest 54,000-issue print run was confiscated by authorities at the border with Russia. It was the second time in just over a week that Narodnaya Volya, which is published in a neighboring Russian city to avoid official shutdown, had its print run confiscated.”The elections are being conducted under the condition of complete information isolation for the voters, and authorities aren’t even making any attempts to create the illusion of the free press,” editor Svetlana Kalinka told The Associated Press.Officials with the Ministry of Information refused to comment.The opposition contends that early voting allows for multiple voting and ballot-stuffing at unguarded and unmonitored polling stations. Opposition leaders have called for peaceful protests if votes are counted fraudulently. An official ban on rallies Sunday has set the stage for potentially violent confrontation.Milinkevich has called on Belarusians not to take part in the early voting, calling it a ploy by authorities aimed at falsifying election results. He told the AP that he had urged Belarusians not to take part because “your votes will simply be stolen.”Nikolai Lazovik, an official with the Central Election Commission, denied that.”This procedure is set out by the law, and there’s nothing frightening about it,” he said.Also Tuesday, a team of European Parliament members picked to observe the elections gave up its efforts to travel to Belarus after being denied entry visas.”The vote of the people doesn’t need any external recognition,” Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov said, dismissing repeated and growing concerns voiced by Western countries about theA university student who identified himself only as Andrei out of fear of retribution said students had been warned “that if we don’t vote early, there could be problems.”He did not say who had issued the warning.He said he had voted for “a free and European future,” but declined to say which candidate he supported.Galina Grushnitskaya, a 72-year-old retiree, said she was voting early – for Lukashenko – because she feared opposition-orchestrated violence on voting day.According to official statistics, as many as 30 percent of voters usually take part in early balloting. Opposition parties have been denied virtually all representation on election commissions that monitor the vote.Nearly 7 million Belarusians are eligible to vote in this nation of 10 million, according to the Central Election Commission.Besides Milinkevich, Lukashenko is facing another opposition challenger and a pro-Lukashenko politician who is widely viewed as running to add legitimacy to the election.