Five detained Belarus candidates may face charges

MINSK Thu Dec 23, 2010 12:09pm EST

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MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus said on Thursday it may charge former presidential candidates being held over election protests, and the United States and European Union vowed to review ties with Minsk after its violent crackdown on demonstrators.

Five former candidates and 14 other opposition activists detained for protests over Sunday's vote will remain in custody and may face charges of "organizing mass disorder," Minsk police spokesman Alexander Lastovsky told Reuters.

They could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

Several hundred Belarussian riot police used batons and shields to disperse a crowd of at least 10,000 protesting at the election of President Alexander Lukashenko for his fourth term and demanding a second round of voting.

Many were beaten and more than 600 activists, journalists and ordinary Belarussians were arrested.

"The elections and their aftermath represent an unfortunate step backwards in the development of democratic governance and respect for human rights in Belarus," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and EU High Representative Catherine Ashton said.

"The people of Belarus deserve better," they said in a joint statement issued in Brussels. "It is against this background that we will be assessing the government of Belarus"s actions to address the current situation and to take developments into account as we review our relations with Belarus."

RUSSIAN SUPPORT

Russia sent the opposite signal. The Kremlin's ambassador to Minsk said Moscow supported legal action against the leaders of the demonstrations.

"They mainly sought the West's refusal to recognize the elections in Belarus," Alexander Surikov said at a press conference. He added, however, that the remaining "mass" of those detained should be forgiven.

The renewed support of Russia, which declared days before the election that it would abandon duties on oil exports to Belarus, came after a tumultuous year between the two neighbors, marked by frequent mutual bickering.

Belarussian finances hugely depend on its relations with Russia -- its largest export market -- and the oil export duty deal is to save Belarus some $4 billion next year.

Among the detained candidates are poet Vladimir Neklyayev, former deputy foreign minister Andrei Sannikov, and a leader of Belarus Christian Democratic party, Vitaly Rymashevsky.

Neklyayev was beaten by the police and detained at the start of the protests. Sannikov and Rymashevsky were also badly beaten, their lawyers said, although Lukashenko said after the election that the police acted within the law.

"When I saw my client he was in a horrible state," Pavel Sapelko, Sannikov's lawyer, told Reuters. "His leg was beaten or twisted, he couldn't move on his own, bruises on hands. He did not receive any medical treatment."

Lukashenko vowed on Monday to thwart any attempt at "revolution" and said there would be no more "senseless democracy" in Belarus after police broke up the protests.

Lukashenko, 56, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994, was officially declared victor with nearly 80 percent of the vote. The opposition said the vote was rigged and the real level of support was far lower.

(Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky; writing by Lidia Kelly; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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