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Belarus: Crackdown On Electoral Commission Continues; Leader Arrested

Minsk, 1 March 1999 (RFE/RL) - Police in Belarus today continued a crackdown against political opponents of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka by arresting the head of the country's electoral commission, Viktor Gonchar. Witnesses said police blocked Gonchar's car as he drove through the capital Minsk and smashed a window to gain entry. The arrest follows the rounding up last week of a number of other electoral commission members. They were released after being charged with illegal assembly and violation of public order.

The electoral commission is not recognised by Lukashenka. It was appointed by a popularly elected parliament which he disbanded. However, the parliament is still widely regarded in the West as legitimate, and has called new presidential elections for May 16.

Former Prime Minister Mikhail Chigir announced today that he will run as a presidential candidate in the May election.

On Friday, the U.S. State Department said in its annual report on human rights that nearly all power in Belarus is concentrated in Lukashenka's hands. The State Department said Lukashenka sought last year to neutralize domestic opposition to his attempts to lead the country back toward Soviet-era authoritarian practices.

The report said that the right of Belarus' citizens to change the government is sharply limited, with restrictions on freedom of association, freedom of choice, freedom of movement, freedom of religion and freedom of the press. International human rights monitors -- says the U.S. -- were closely watched and frequently harassed. There has been no immediate reaction from Belarus to the State Department report.