Belarus holds dozens at candle-lit protest



Belarussian police detained dozens of people who took part in a candle-lit protest against President Alexander Lukashenko late on Monday, a year after he was re-elected for a fourth term in a vote his opponents criticize as fraudulent.

The Minsk police department said on Tuesday 32 people faced court hearings on charges such as taking part in illegal protests and hooliganism. In Belarus, those can lead to fines or arrest for up to two weeks.

The detentions followed a fresh call from the West for Belarus to release political prisoners and open up its authoritarian political system.

Lukashenko, who has run the former Soviet republic since 1994 tolerating little dissent, faced an unusually large public protest after his re-election in December 2010 when tens of thousands of people rallied in central Minsk.

Police cracked down on the protest then, arresting hundreds including several opposition presidential candidates, prompting condemnation and sanctions from the West.

On Monday, dozens of people commemorated the event by lighting candles at the site of the protest. Many were detained by police, although the majority were released soon afterwards, according to human rights group Vesna-96.

"The police were rather rough. They grabbed those who lit candles, " an eyewitness told Reuters. "They would grab one or two people out of the crowd, drag them to the ground and put them into (police) buses."

Separately, women’s rights group Femen from neighboring Ukraine said on Tuesday it had lost contact with three of its activists who staged a topless protest in Minsk on Monday and may have been detained.

The United States and the European Union have jointly called on Belarus in recent days to release and rehabilitate all political prisoners and voiced concern about deteriorating rights conditions in the year since the December 2010 crackdown.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton urged Minsk in a joint statement to free former presidential candidates Andrei Sannikov and Nikolai Statkevich who were jailed after the protest.

They also expressed "grave concern over new laws that will further restrict citizens’ fundamental freedoms of assembly, association and expression and that target support to civil society."

(Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky ; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov)

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