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Belarus president's main rivals barred from contesting election

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Minsk (AFP)

The Belarusian central electoral commission on Tuesday refused to register the imprisoned main rival to President Alexander Lukashenko as a candidate for the country's presidential election in August.

A new wave of opposition candidates led protests this summer seeking to unseat the 65-year-old strongman leader of the authoritarian ex-Soviet state that borders the European Union.

The central electoral commission rejected two major opposition candidates, citing alleged violations of rules including incorrectly filled-out income declarations and a failure to gather signatures.

It unanimously voted against Lukashenko's strongest election rival, Viktor Babaryko, a 56-year-old former banker who was arrested last month over suspected financial crimes.

It also rejected the candidacy of Valery Tsepkalo, 55, a former ambassador to Washington and another popular opposition figure.

Lukashenko, a former collective farm chief, has been president for 26 years and will seek his sixth term in the August 9 election. He will stand against four candidates.

The poll is going ahead despite the country of nine million people confirming more than 65,000 coronavirus cases. Lukashenko has refused to impose a strict lockdown.

- 'Strongest candidates removed' -

Belarus has seen a turbulent summer of protests and arrests of would-be opposition candidates, with Babaryko seen as the strongest potential opponent.

"The authorities removed the strongest candidates and left the weakest," Radio Free Europe political analyst Valery Karbalevich told AFP.

He said that a genuine fight was possible only if the remaining opposition candidates chose a single one of them to stand, to avoid dividing the vote.

"They won't do that. It's been done just in the way that suits the authorities," added.

The head of the central electoral commission, Lidiya Yermoshina, said Babaryko's campaign team had gathered the necessary 100,000 valid signatures from supporters.

But she read out a letter from the state control committee, an audit body, saying Babaryko was part of an "organised criminal group" and failed to declare more than $4 million earned in 2019.

A lawyer representing Babaryko told the commission the accusations were part of the criminal case against him that has not yet been heard.

The electoral chief also said Babaryko had used foreign financing for his campaign, referring to the use of staff and resources from his former workplace, the Belarusian subsidiary of Russian state bank Gazprombank.

A senior Belarusian official has claimed Babaryko is in cahoots with "puppeteers" from Moscow.

Babaryko is incarcerated in the prison of the KGB security service.

The commission also rejected the main opposition candidate not in jail, Tsepkalo, who took part in the summer protests. The chairwoman cited a lack of valid signatures and an allegedly incorrectly filled-out earnings declaration.

The commission registered five candidates including Lukashenko, who said he will not campaign on state media, where his activities are already widely covered.

- 'Stop the cockroach!' -

The commission allowed the candidacy of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the 37-year-old wife of a jailed vlogger who submitted herself as a candidate after her husband was barred.

Tikhanovskaya's husband, 41-year-old Sergei Tikhanovsky, nicknamed Lukashenko the "cockroach" and his campaign slogan was "Stop the cockroach". His supporters waved slippers -- often used to kill the insects -- at protests.

Tikhanovsky has been charged with organising a gross breach of public order and barred from running. He is in a police jail and faces a possible prison term if convicted.

Amnesty International has recognised him as a prisoner of conscience along with Babaryko.

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

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