President Of Belarus Defends Crackdown

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Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko says he won 80 percent of the vote on Sunday. But international election observers say the vote was flawed, and an opposition protest was broken up by police. Hundreds were arrested, and candidates standing against Lukashenko were beaten and detained.

AUDIE CORNISH, host:

The U.S. government has condemned yesterday's political crackdown in Belarus and says the results of the weekend's presidential election cannot be called legitimate.

President Alexander Lukashenko, often called Europe's last dictator, won 80 percent of the vote in official results. But international observers say the election was flawed. Hundreds of demonstrators were arrested, and candidates opposing Lukashenko were beaten and detained.

NPR's David Greene reports from the capital, Minsk.

DAVID GREENE: The Belarussian government found some creative ways to limit free speech.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENE: After the polls closed, opposition leaders attempted a rally. But officials drowned them out with Soviet folk music. Already, they had poured water across the main square, creating a makeshift ice rink where protests usually happen.

Unidentified Group: (Speaking foreign language)

GREENE: Yet the crowd, swelling to tens of thousands, refused to stop. They marched down a wide avenue, chanting long live Belarus and accusing President Lukashenko of rigging his re-election. There were elderly people, students and teenagers.

Mr. VIKTOR SHATYLENYA: (Speaking foreign language)

GREENE: Fifty-year-old Viktor Shatylenya was out there in the cold. I tore up my ballot paper today, he said, because they count votes for only one candidate. We're just all marching to show we're united. And then that'll be it. We'll go to bed.

(Soundbite of sirens)

GREENE: But that wasn't it. At some point, a small crowd stormed into the main government building. Opposition leaders say the police staged the break-in to justify their response. Whatever triggered it, the night turned violent.

(Soundbite of political protest)

GREENE: Riot police swarmed onto the streets, slamming their shields on the ground to intimidate. Police dragged people onto buses and forced journalists into a hotel lobby. A policeman shoved an NPR producer with his club.

Presidential candidates were the big targets. Of the nine who ran against the president, seven were arrested, some beaten up. After a scuffle with police, one leading candidate, Vladimir Neklyayev, was hospitalized, but only briefly.

Seven men in plainclothes burst into the intensive care ward, bundled him up in a blanket and carted him away. His wife says she hasn't seen him since.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language).

GREENE: Today, state-run television in Belarus downplayed the violence while devoting several hours to President Lukashenko live. The 56-year-old president defended his victory and the ensuing crackdown. The police were going after people determined to commit barbarism, the president said.

President ALEXANDER LUKASHENKO: (Speaking foreign language).

GREENE: He added: There will be no revolution or criminality in Belarus. Official results today suggest Lukashenko won 80 percent of the vote, and so his 16 years in office will be extended.

However, Tony Lloyd, who led a team of European election observers, questioned that 80-percent figure. Lloyd told a press conference his team was often denied the chance to observe vote counts.

Mr. TONY LLOYD (Election Observer): Frankly, the people of Belarus deserve better. And in particular, I now expect the government to account for the arrest of presidential candidates, journalists and human rights activists.

GREENE: President Lukashenko, who had a few testy spats with Russia this year, and he was trying to court Western European governments, hoping for more foreign investment. Those European leaders had been looking at this election as a test of Lukashenko's commitment to democratic values.

David Greene, NPR News, Minsk.

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