The seven Belarusian presidential candidates who were arrested after this month's election have been formally charged with organizing a mass public disturbance and face up to 15 years in prison, their lawyers said Wednesday.
Tens of thousands of opposition supporters marched through the streets of Minsk after the Dec. 19 election to protest fraudulent vote-counting. The demonstration was violently broken up by club-swinging riot police.
The election handed a fourth term to authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, who exercises overwhelming control over politics, industry and media in this nation of 10 million.
One of his challengers, Vladimir Neklyayev, was badly beaten while trying to lead supporters to the election-night protest, and his lawyer said his health took a sharp turn for the worse in prison Wednesday and his life was in danger.
Lawyer Tamara Sidorenko said 64-year-old Neklyayev suffered an attack of hypertension in which his blood pressure soared. He was treated by medics, but prison officials refused to allow him to be hospitalized, and his blood pressure has not come down, Sidorenko said. His speech was slow and he was barely able to move.
"At any moment Neklyayev could die," the lawyer said. "He has been charged, but he cannot be questioned."
Another candidate, Nikolai Satkevich, has declared a hunger strike in prison, according to his lawyer, Tatyana Stankevich.
The government refused to comment on the charges filed against the seven candidates, five of whom remain in prison.
Overall, some 700 people were arrested after the election. Most were sentenced to five to 15 days in jail.