Belarus election: Hundreds protest after Lukashenko's rivals barred

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Police officers wearing protective face masks detain a protester during a rally in Minsk, BelarusImage source, EPA
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Opposition protests have followed the recent arrests of government critics in Belarus

Protests have erupted in Belarus, with hundreds rallying against the barring of two leading opposition candidates in next month's presidential election.

Belarus's electoral commission rejected the applications of President Alexander Lukashenko's main rivals, Valery Tsepkalo and Viktor Babaryko.

In power since 1994, Mr Lukashenko is now virtually assured to win the poll.

The commission's decision was followed by protests in the capital, Minsk, and other cities.

The demonstrations were largely peaceful in Minsk, where protesters broke into rounds of applause, while passing drivers honked their horns in support.

"We are categorically for honest and fair elections," one protester in the capital told Reuters news agency.

There were reports of other rallies in the cities of Grodno, Gomel and Brest as well, with images posted to social media networks.

Image source, EPA
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People in cars passing by expressed their support for the protests

More than 35 people, including several journalists, were arrested during the protests, rights group Viasna said.

The protests were the latest show of discontent against the government following the arrests of opposition figures ahead of the election on 9 August.

Why were the opposition candidates barred?

On Tuesday the electoral commission said it found problems with the applications of Mr Tsepkalo and Mr Babaryko, both vocal critics of Mr Lukashenko.

Mr Babaryko, who was seen as Mr Lukashenko's strongest contender, was excluded from the ballot because of a criminal case against him, the commission said.

The former banker's arrest last month on suspicion of money laundering brought angry crowds to the streets, with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen calling his detention "politically motivated".

The other challenger, former ambassador to the US Mr Tsepkalo, was rejected for failing to gather the 100,000 signatures required to stand in the election, the commission said.

Image source, EPA
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Rights groups say several dozen people were arrested by police at the protests

Mr Tsepkalo and Mr Babaryko both say they plan to appeal against the ruling.

The European Union delegation to Belarus said the commission's decision "undermines the overall integrity and democratic nature of the elections".

What's the background to the decision?

The commission's decision comes at a time of increased pressure on government critics as August's election draws closer.

Mr Lukashenko has been accused of silencing his critics, as he seeks a sixth term in office.

Media caption,

A rare audience with Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko

Opposition activists, journalists and bloggers have reportedly been arrested in recent weeks.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), an international election monitor, has not recognised any elections in Belarus as free and fair since 1995.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic continues to take its toll in Belarus, which has officially recorded more than 65,000 cases and almost 500 deaths to date.

Mr Lukashenko, who initially denied the virus was spreading in the country, has been criticised for not imposing a stricter lockdown.

BBC Moscow correspondent Sarah Rainsford said the recent protests have revealed deepening discontent with Mr Lukashenko's authoritarian rule, his refusal to take Covid-19 seriously, and the poor state of the country's economy.

Media caption,

Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko plays ice hockey despite global Covid-19 crisis