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Belarus Officials Move To Ward Off Trouble On Disputed Vote Anniversary

Critics of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's reelection in December 2010 are marking the first anniversary of that divisive vote, which ushered in rare mass protests and a ruthless crackdown through beatings, jailings, and targeted harassment, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reports.

Nearly 50,000 people rallied in Minsk on election night a year ago, when Lukashenka was declared the winner of a fraud-tainted ballot in which each of his nine rivals was awarded less than 3 percent of the vote. More than 700 demonstrators were arrested as authorities cracked down on the protest.

Bitter Divisions

Presidential candidates Andrey Sannikau and Mikalay Statkevich were jailed for five and six years respectively, while two other presidential hopefuls received suspended sentences that bar them from politics.

Sannikau's wife and prominent journalist Iryna Khalip said in an interview that she received a summons calling her in for questioning this evening in a move that appeared aimed at preventing her from attending commemorations.

Several opposition supporters said they would defy a police ban and light candles tonight on a downtown Minsk square opposite the president's office.

Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu, a former chairman of the Union of Belarusian Writers and presidential candidate in the contested vote, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that he and other activists had requested in a letter to President Lukashenka the release of all political prisoners. Nyaklyaeu was hospitalized as a result of injuries at the hands of police during the election-night protest a year ago.

Also on December 19, police detained at least six journalists who were covering a topless feminist protest outside the KGB security service.

Supporters Detained

A group of activists was detained on its way to visit Statkevich in jail.

Alyaksey Haurutsikau, a member of Statkevich's presidential election team last year, told RFE/RL by telephone that he and his colleagues were driving to the eastern town of Shklou, where Statkevich is serving his jail term.

Haurutsikau said they planned to meet with the warden of the penitentiary where Statkevich is serving his term, as the day is designated for people to meet with the warden.

But as their car approached the town of Aktsyabrski around 9 a.m., Haurutsikau said, it was stopped by police and the activists were taken to the Vitsebsk Oblast traffic inspection department. The police said the car -- which Haurutsikau said belongs to the coordinator of the Za Svabodu (For Liberty) movement in Vitsebsk, Khrystafor Zhalyapau -- was a stolen vehicle.

Zhalyapau, who was driving the car, was told that he is suspected of car theft. Haurutsikau, opposition activist Yan Dzyarzhautsau, and independent journalist Zmitser Kazakevich were told that they are witnesses in the case.

On December 18, the United States and the European Union called on Lukashenka to release and exonerate all political prisoners and expressed concern about deteriorating rights conditions.

One of the last public statements issued by former Czechoslovak dissident and President Vaclav Havel -- whose moral leadership steered his own country through the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and inspired democracy activists all over the world -- was an expression of solidarity with Belarus's political prisoners delivered to RFE/RL's Belarus Service. Havel died on December 18 at the age of 75.

with additional agency reports