Police beat journalists covering police assault of opposition candidate

New York, March 2, 2006—Police today turned on journalists in Belarus trying to cover an attack by plainclothes police officers on an opposition candidate in March 19 presidential elections. The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the assault.

Aleksandr Kozulin, one of three candidates challenging president Aleksandr Lukashenko, was beaten and detained by police in the capital Minsk when he tried to enter a meeting to hear Lukashenko speak, local and international news organizations reported. Kozulin was released after several hours in custody.

Police beat reporters trying to cover the assault. A Reuters television cameraman, whose name was not immediately available, was beaten and hospitalized with minor injuries. Reporters were detained inside the meeting hall to prevent them from recording the arrest of Kozulin who was driven away to the Oktryabrsk police station.

Kozulin supporters gathered at the police station demanding his release. Police rounded up about 20 of them along with some of the journalists who covered the protest, Reuters reported.

A gunman then fired three shots at a vehicle carrying Kozulin supporters. According to a correspondent of the independent Belapan news agency, who witnessed the shooting, the shooter was a police officer dressed in civilian clothes. Police detained photographers from Reuters, The Associated Press, and newspapers Nasha Niva and Belgazeta after the shooting and confiscated their cameras to check for pictures, the human rights center Charter 97 said.

Plainclothes police beat journalist Oleg Ulevich of the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda in Belarus when he tried to take photographs outside the Oktryabrsk police station. He was taken to the hospital with concussion and a broken nose, local reports said.

“This is nothing but state thuggery,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “We condemn in the strongest terms these flagrant attempts to stifle media coverage of opposition candidates during the presidential campaign.”

Lukashenko, who rules Belarus with an iron fist, is expected to win reelection. Reuters quoted him as calling Kozulin’s attempt to attend his speech “a provocation.”