Belarus president’s main rival detained in crackdown before election

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s main rival was detained on Thursday and accused of siphoning $430 million out of the country, in a widening crackdown on opponents before an Aug. 9 presidential election.

FILE PHOTO: Viktor Babariko, who resigned as head of Belgazprombank to launch his bid for the Belarusian presidency, attends a news conference in Minsk, Belarus June 11, 2020. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

Lukashenko has allowed little dissent in the former Soviet republic since coming to power in 1994 but faces the biggest challenge to his authority in years, with thousands taking to the streets to support opposition candidates.

Viktor Babariko, widely seen as Lukashenko’s main challenger in the election, was “a direct organiser, a leader of illegal activities”, the head of the State Control Committee (KGC), Ivan Tertel, said on state television.

Babariko was accused of trying to influence witnesses, hiding previous crimes and taking $430 million out of Belarus in money-laundering schemes, Tertel said.

Hundreds took to the streets of Minsk in solidarity with Babariko and other detained opponents of Lukashenko.

Babariko has accused Lukashenko of using criminal cases to put political pressure on him, which Lukashenko denies.

Babariko’s lawyers said they were not allowed into the building where he was taken.

“This is a flagrant violation of the constitutional right to defence,” said one of his lawyers, Dmitry Loevsky.

Babariko’s election team said the authorities were also conducting a search at Babariko’s house.

Public frustration with Lukashenko’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and grievances about the economy and human rights have reinvigorated opposition to his rule.

Babariko is a former head of the local unit of Russia’s Gazprombank, whose offices were raided in June in a tax evasion and money laundering case. Belgazprombank has been taken into temporary administration and 15 employees have been detained.

Another election candidate said this week she was pressing on with her campaign despite receiving a threat to have her children taken away.

Svetlana Tikhanouskaya decided to run after her husband, an anti-Lukashenko blogger, was arrested last month for threatening public order.

Writing by Matthias Williams, Editing by Timothy Heritage and Giles Elgood