Potential Belarusian Presidential Challenger Remanded In Custody

MINSK -- A court in Minsk has remanded in custody a potential opponent of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka as election officials announced what candidates would be allowed to run against the strongman in an August 9 presidential election.

Lawyer Dzmitry Layeuski said on June 30 that the Minsk Central district court upheld the pretrial detention of his client Viktar Babaryka, who is charged with financial crimes.

Babaryka and his son Eduard were arrested on June 18 after police questioned them on allegations of tax evasion and money laundering in connection with an investigation at Russian-owned Belgazprombank, where the elder Babaryka worked for 20 years.

Belarusian authorities on June 15 took control of the bank and arrested more than a dozen top executives on charges of tax evasion and money laundering.

Babaryka, 56, has said the actions taken against Belgazprombank were part of an intimidation campaign conducted on “political orders."

Earlier in June, opposition rallies and gatherings in support of would-be candidates attracted thousands of people across Belarus as the authoritarian Lukashenka seeks a sixth term.

Babaryka has risen in popularity as the vote nears, and his election campaign has said it collected nearly 435,000 signatures -- more than four times the required 100,000 minimum needed to get on the ballot.

But the Central Election Commission (CEC) claimed on June 30 that Babaryka received only 165,744 signatures, a day after election authorities rejected tens of thousands of signatures he and other opposition candidates had collected.

Six other candidates, including Lukashenka, collected more than 100,000 signatures to run in the race, it said.

The CEC said Valer Tsapkala, a former ambassador to the United States and the ex-head of a high-tech incubator in Minsk, failed to overcome the hurdle after his campaign said election officials rejected at least 38,000 signatures.

Tsapkala submitted 160,000 signatures for registration and is expected to appeal.

Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the wife of popular blogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski, barely made it over the 100,000-signature threshold.

Election officials said Lukashenka collected 1,939,572 signatures, nearly three times more than all other five candidates allowed to run against him combined.

The lead-up to the election has been marked by a widening crackdown and intimidation tactics on the opposition.

Several opposition activists, politicians, and bloggers were sentenced to up to 15 days in jail then for taking part in what authorities called "unsanctioned rallies."

On June 29, Amnesty International said it recognized Babaryka and his son, who heads his father's presidential-election campaign, as prisoners of conscience.

"The timing and the manner of the arrests, the involvement of the KDB, and the secrecy surrounding the case indicate that the prosecution of Viktar and Eduard Babaryka is politically motivated. Amnesty International believes that Viktar and Eduard Babaryka are prisoners of conscience, prosecuted solely for the peaceful expression of their political opinions. The authorities must immediately and unconditionally release them," an Amnesty statement said.

The London-based rights group also said that it recognizes Tsikhanouski and his eight supporters arrested on charges of obstructing elections, as prisoners of conscience.

The statement also condemned the ill treatment of other activists and journalists arrested over their openly expressing opinions criticizing the Belarusian government and Lukashenka.

Lukashenka, who has ruled the country of 9.5 million people since 1994, is currently serving his fifth presidential term and announced that he will run for office again. Belarus abolished presidential term limits in 2004.

The country has been the target of U.S. and EU sanctions over its poor rights record and lack of fair elections, but Belarus and the West have recently sought to mend ties to reduce Russia’s influence in the country.

With reporting by BelaPAN