MINSK (Reuters) – President Alexander Lukashenko’s main rival was detained on Thursday and accused of siphoning $430 million out of Belarus, in a widening crackdown ahead of August’s presidential election.
FILE PHOTO: Viktor Babariko, who resigned as head of Belgazprombank to launch his bid for the Belarusian presidency, attends a news conference in Minsk, Belarus June 11, 2020. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko
Lukashenko, who has allowed little dissent in the former Soviet republic since gaining power in 1994, faces the biggest challenge to his authority in years, with thousands taking to the streets to support opposition candidates.
Viktor Babariko, who is widely seen as Lukashenko’s main challenger in the election, was alleged to be “a direct organiser, a leader of illegal activities” Ivan Tertel, head of the State Control Committee (KGC).
Tertel said on state television that Babariko was accused of trying to influence witnesses, hiding previous crimes and taking $430 million out of Belarus in money-laundering schemes.
Babariko was detained along with his 30-year-old son Eduard, who was running his father’s election campaign. Babariko’s election team said authorities were also searching his home.
Hundreds took to the streets of Minsk to show their solidarity with Babariko and other detained opponents of Lukashenko, while the opposition candidate’s campaign team said it would still field him in the presidential vote on August 9.
Public frustration with Lukashenko’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and grievances about the economy and human rights have reinvigorated opposition to his rule
“We consider the events of recent days and, in particular, today’s detention and the barring of lawyers from access to Viktor and Eduard Babariko as a direct violation of human rights,” it said in a statement, adding:
“What we hear about the criminal case and the detention from state television channels, we consider it an absurdity.”
Lukashenko has denied allegations Babariko of using criminal cases to exert political pressure on his opponent.
Babariko is a former head of the local unit of Russia’s Gazprombank. Belgazprombank, whose offices were raided in a tax evasion and money laundering case, has been put into temporary administration and 15 workers detained.
Another election candidate said this week she was pressing on with her campaign, despite receiving a threat to have her children taken away.
Writing Matthias Williams, Editing Timothy Heritage, Giles Elgood and Alexander Smith