Belarus leader's election rival detained as crackdown intensifies

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Minsk (AFP)

Belarusian authorities on Thursday detained President Alexander Lukashenko's main rival ahead of August's election, Viktor Babaryko, on suspicion of financial crimes, the head of the state control committee said.

The detention of the 56-year-old former banker came after authorities jailed other key opposition figures including Mikola Statkevich ahead of an election in which Lukashenko is seeking a sixth term.

"Babaryko is detained because he was the organiser and leader of illegal activities, (and) tried to influence witness testimony," committee chief Ivan Tertel told reporters.

Babaryko formerly headed Belgazprombank, a Belarus subsidiary of Russian energy giant Gazprom.

His detention was announced after police earlier Thursday searched his home and took Babaryko and his son for questioning.

Their lawyers were prevented from accessing the premises, campaign spokesman Gleb Germanchuk told AFP.

National television reported that around 20 people were detained in connection with investigations linked to Belgazprombank, and some were testifying against Babaryko.

Last week, investigators raided the offices of Belgazprombank and launched probes into tax dodging and money laundering against current and former bankers.

- 'Lukashenko's nerves snapped' -

Political analyst Alexander Klaskovsky said Babarykov's arrest was politically motivated, adding that the former banker was Lukashenko's strongest election rival and has gathered a record number of ballot-access signatures.

"Babaryko is a new figure in the opposition movement, he has become popular quickly," said Klaskovsky.

"Lukashenko's nerves snapped."

Law enforcement authorities in the former Soviet country have cracked down hard on would-be opposition candidates ahead of the August 9 presidential election.

The run-up to the vote has seen a flurry of opposition activity and the detention of prominent figures.

In early June, Belarus opposition leader Statkevich was sentenced to 15 days in jail as dozens of activists were held by the authorities.

Statkevich was jailed for another 15 days on Monday, his wife said.

Statkevich challenged Lukashenko in elections in 2010 but was sentenced to six years in prison. He was released in 2015 and is barred from contesting the August poll.

Opposition vlogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, who sought to challenge Lukashenko, has been jailed on public order charges.

Authorities have opened a criminal investigation against Tikhanovsky and his supporters.

His popularity stems from his channel "A Country for Life", which has amassed around 230,000 subscribers with clips about corruption, the court system and police abuse.

He also coined a new insult for Lukashenko when he called him a "cockroach".

After his arrest, his wife Svetlana stepped into his place but has since faced threats.

Lukashenko, a 65-year-old former collective farm director, has ruled Belarus since 1994 and has raised the possibility of serving a further two terms.

The Belarusian opposition has been unable to get a foothold on political power.

Some candidates like Statkevich have spent long terms in jail, and not a single dissenting voice gained a seat in parliament in the 2019 poll.

The opposition's drive this year has been markedly different in style from the incumbent's traditional Soviet approach to campaigning.

Lukashenko has branded opposition activists "bands of criminals" who want to disrupt the election.

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