MINSK -- Thousands of people across Belarus protested and scuffles broke out with police after a top challenger to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka was barred from running in the country's election next month amid growing public discontent over the Belarusian authoritarian leader's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Belarusian Central Election Commission (CEC) announced on July 14 that five candidates were officially registered for the August 9 ballot, including Lukashenka, 65, who has ruled the country since 1994.
However, the CEC also said that Viktar Babaryka, a former bank manager now in jail on charges that he and his campaign say are politically motivated, was left off the list of candidates.
CEC chairwoman Lidziya Yarmoshyna said that Babaryka was not registered because inconsistencies were allegedly found in his income and property declaration, and because a foreign organization had taken part in his election campaign. She did not elaborate.
Valer Tsapkala, a prominent businessman and former Belarusian ambassador to the United States, was also disqualified from running by the CEC.
'Lacking In Transparency'
Yarmoshyna said Tsapkala had been disqualified due to the rejection of many of the signatures his campaign collected to get him on the ballot.
The European Union's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that "the seemingly arbitrary exclusion of candidates limits the possibility for the Belarusian people to express their will and already undermines the overall integrity and democratic nature of the elections."
"By denying the registration of Viktar Babaryka and [Valer] Tsapkala the Belarusian authorities have failed to ensure a meaningful and competitive political contest," Borrell said in a statement.
In the capital, Minsk, thousands of protesters held demonstrations at various locations, walking peacefully and clapping as passing drivers honked their horns in support. Similar protests were held in regional cities, including Brest and Gomel.
More than 140 people were detained across the country, according to the human rights center Viasna.
Among those detained were two RFE/RL journalists during a live broadcast in Minsk.
Videos circulating on social media showed protesters being detained by police officers and plainclothes police, who threw some protesters into vans.
In scenes rarely seen during a recent wave of protests, protesters also scuffled with riot police and plainclothes police officers.
The protests over the disqualification of candidates on July 14 were only the latest in weeks of political unrest that has resulted in dozens of demonstrations and scores of arrests.
The upcoming election comes as Lukashenka faces mounting public opposition to his rule. The country has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic with more than 65,000 confirmed cases as of July 14, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
Lukashenka ignored calls to institute any lockdown measures, dismissing the virus as nothing more than a 'psychosis.' Hundreds of people, including activists and bloggers have been arrested as the government has cracked down hard on rallies and demonstrations despite calls for restraint from Western governments and institutions, including the United Nations.
Babaryka and his son were arrested on June 18 after police questioned them on allegations of tax evasion and money-laundering in connection with an investigation at the Russian-owned Belgazprombank, where the elder Babaryka worked for 20 years.
Belarusian authorities on June 15 took control of the bank and arrested more than a dozen top executives on charges of tax evasion and money-laundering.
Analysts said Babaryka could have posed a threat at the ballot box to Lukashenka. His election team said they had collected nearly 435,000 signatures to support his candidacy, a number they said was unprecedented for an independent candidate in Belarus and more than four times the required 100,000 needed to get on the ballot.
Besides Lukashenka, the CEC cleared four other candidates for the August 9 poll: Andrey Dzmitryyeu, Hanna Kanapatskaya, Syarhey Cherachan, and Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
Tsikhanouskaya is the wife of a jailed vlogger, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, who also sought to take part in the presidential election.
Tsikhanouski was detained in May and sentenced to 10 days in jail for taking part in an unsanctioned rally in the western city of Hrodna in late-May held to collect signatures for potential presidential candidates, including himself.
He was set to be released on June 8 after completing the sentence but authorities kept him incarcerated and said a day later that he and seven others had been charged with "the organization and preparation of actions that severely violated public order," a reference to the Hrodna rally.
If convicted, Tsikhanouski and the seven others in the case may face up to three years in prison.
On July 1, Tsikhanouski received an additional 15 days in jail for refusing to follow a police officer's orders during the rallies. He and his supporters have rejected all the charges, calling them politically motivated.
Amnesty International has recognized Babaryka, his son Eduard and Syarhey Tsikhanouski as prisoners of conscience.
Kanapatskaya was one of two opposition candidates elected to the Belarusian parliament in 2016. However, her 2019 bid to seek reelection to the lower house of the country's largely rubber-stamp National Assembly was struck down by the CEC, which has been led by Yarmoshyna for 20 years.