MINSK -- Human rights groups have accused Belarusian authorities of fostering an atmosphere of "fear and intimidation" ahead of a presidential election scheduled for August 9.
The Human Rights Defenders For Free Elections campaign, run by the Belarusian Helsinki Committee and the Vyasna (Spring) human rights center in Minsk, said in a joint statement on July 27 that a campaign of repression has been initiated by the authorities, including the current detention of 25 individuals on politically motivated charges.
In all, the total number of people arrested since the beginning of the election campaign exceeds 1,140, of whom 190 were incarcerated and 333 were ordered to pay fines, the activists said.
The rights groups emphasized that the Supreme Court of Belarus had denied the appeal of potential opposition presidential candidate Valer Tsapkala against the decision of the Central Election Commission to reject his registration and refused to look into a similar complaint filed by another potential candidate, Viktar Babaryka.
Experts of the Human Rights Defenders For Free Elections campaign believe that when making the decision on Tsapkala's complaint, the court ignored the circumstances of the case and failed to take into account "important reasons" that created obstacles for Babaryka's campaign to meet deadlines, which legislation allows to be prolonged.
Tsapkala had to flee the country with his children several days ago, fearing a politically motivated arrest, while Babaryka and his son Eduard were arrested in June on embezzlement charges, which they and their supporters call trumped up and imposed in order to prevent Babaryka from taking part in the vote.
The joint statement by the human rights groups also noted that the Central Election Commission's move to reduce the number of observers at polling stations to five people bars independent observers from monitoring the election process and violates the basic principle of transparency in democratic elections.
The statement expressed a particular concern over statements made by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and the head of the Security Council, Andrey Raukou, about the possibility of involving troops to counter protests and demonstrations.
"Representatives of the Human Rights Defenders For Free Elections consider it as creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation in the society," the statement said.
The August 9 election comes as Lukashenka faces mounting public opposition after 26 years in power. Hundreds of people, including activists and bloggers, have been arrested as the government has cracked down hard on rallies and demonstrations supporting opposition candidates who were not registered by election officials.
Western governments and institutions, including the United Nations, have called on Lukashenka's government to stop the crackdown.
Tsapkala's wife, Veranika Tsapkala, who remained in the country, and a coordinator of Babaryka’s campaign, Maryya Kalesnikava, have joined to support opposition presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya who, unlike Tsapkala and Babaryka, was registered as a presidential candidate.
Tsikhanouskaya became a candidate after her husband, well-known vlogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski, was incarcerated for openly expressing his intention to run for president.
Tsikhanouskaya also moved her two children to an EU country out of concern for their safety after receiving threats ahead of the election.
On July 26, Tsikhanouskaya told a gathering of thousands of people who came to express their support for her in the southeastern city of Homel that her son told her via the Internet that he was "scared for her."
"I don’t want to live in a country where it’s scary to live. I want to live in my native country, where it is not scary to live, it is not scary to talk," Tsikhanouskaya said.
She stressed that by removing "the three strongest candidates for the presidency" -- Syarhey Tsikhanouski, Viktar Babaryka, and Valer Tsapkala -- "the authorities failed to take into account that "behind every strong man stands a strong woman."
Lukashenka has rejected domestic and Western criticism of the government's violent dispersal of pro-democracy demonstrations and the disqualification of candidates.
The Belarusian leader has ruled the country since 1994 and is currently serving his fifth term as president. Belarus abolished presidential term limits in 2004.