European Union demands release of Belarusian opposition leader

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Sunday, March 26, 2006

Belarus.

The European Union (EU) has demanded the release of Alexandr Kozulin, a Belarusian opposition leader arrested during a protest rally in Minsk. Kozulin was one of the leaders in a series of rolling protests against the recent election victory of President Alexander Lukashenko.

The EU president is "appalled by the violence used against demonstrators by the Belarusian authorities," it said in a statement. "It expresses serious concern about the arrest of demonstrators and members of the democratic opposition, including presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin, and demands their immediate release," the statement said.

Reports indicate that the streets of Minsk have settled to a "peaceful standstill" on Sunday, after riot police moved in to break up a protest rally - a day after reports that police brutally dispersed large crowds in the capital. Police in riot gear stormed a rally on Friday, removing hundreds of protesters by truck. During a rally on Saturday, Alexander Kozulin was "pulled out of a car by police and taken away."

Kozulin's spokeswoman Nina Shedlovskaya said he had been beaten by police. On Sunday, Kozulin's wife, Irina, described his condition was "OK." "The rescue squad wasn't called for him," she told the Associated Press. Also Sunday, about 80 pro-Lukashenko youth activists picketed the U.S. Embassy in Minsk, shouting "Hands off Belarus." Russian news agencies report that the Polish Embassy was also picketed.

Kozulin was detained as protesters marched on a jail holding others detained during what is being called "the biggest protests in Belarus for ten years." Belarus Independent Media Centre reports that the "arrest of 460 people in the protest tent camp on Friday morning had provoked the population and strengthened the general protest mood in Belarus."

The Belarus IMC report says: "More than 5000 people gathered on Saturday in the centre of Minsk for the demonstration which had been announced. Authorities opposed the protest with all available police forces, special services and the army."

Demonstrators demand a repeat of last week's election poll. Mr Lukashenko, President of Belarus since 1994, has been widely accused of pursuing "Soviet-style policies, closing down the media and cracking down on rivals." President Lukashenko contends the United States and Western European countries are giving financial and moral support to the opposition group.

EU Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner also demanded that Belarus release members of the opposition. "I urge the Belarussian government to adhere to the rules of democracy," Ferrero-Waldner was quoted as saying. "If the Belarussian government does not show remorse, visa bans will probably be sharpened. In concrete terms, that means that those responsible will not be able to travel to EU member states. Foreign assets of Belarussian lawmakers could also be frozen. It's important that sanctions do not hurt the people."

Alexander Milinkevich, Belarus's main opposition leader, praised Belarussians who have been protesting since the election. However he acknowledged that their numbers were not enough to defeat Lukashenko's government.

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