Belarus has opened a criminal case over protests in which more than 250 people were arrested after President Alexander Lukashenko’s two main rivals were barred from running in a presidential election next month.
Wednesday’s move came after several hundred people took to the streets of the capital Minsk on Tuesday and social media reported protests in other Belarusian cities after the central election commission refused to register the two challengers.
“All video materials posted on the internet are attached to the materials of the criminal case and are currently being studied by investigators,” the state investigative committee said in a statement.
Lukashenko, who has allowed little dissent in his 26-year rule, is all but certain to win the August 9 election though he has faced mass protests this year.
The European Union delegation to Belarus said the election commission’s decision “undermines the overall integrity and democratic nature of the elections”.
In defiant comments on Wednesday, Lukashenko said he would not accept preaching on democratic values from Western countries.
“They start hinting to us: make sure it’s all democratic, that there are no street clashes,” he said during a meeting with supporters in a provincial city.
“Don’t point the finger at us over how we live,” he said. “We will defend our country with all legal methods.”
“No Maidans or revolutions will save us,” he said, referring to a popular uprising in Ukraine in 2014.
Viktor Babaryko, a banker who was arrested last month, was excluded from the ballot because of a criminal case against him, the commission said.
Valery Tsepkalo, a former ambassador who runs an office park for tech companies, was also rejected, after signatures on a supporting petition were nullified.
The two men had been seen by some people as the last candidates with any chance of defeating Lukashenko, who faces growing public frustration over the economy, human rights and his playing down of the COVID-19 pandemic in the former Soviet republic.