The State Department says the arrest and beating of an opposition politician in Belarus Thursday reinforces concern the country's upcoming presidential election will not be free and fair. Strongman President Alexander Lukashenko, the country's leader since 1994 is seeking a third term in office in the March 19 voting.
Officials here had already expressed serious concern that the Belarus elections would not meet international standards, and they say the concern has been reinforced by Thursday's events, in which an opposition presidential candidate was beaten and arrested.
News reports say the opposition figure, Aleksandr Kazulin, was accosted by security agents in Minsk as he tried to attend a pro-government assembly designed to endorse Mr. Lukashenko's candidacy.
Kazulin, one of two candidates challenging the incumbent, was said to have suffered facial cuts and bruises in the melee. He was arrested but released several hours later. Dozens of opposition activists were also reported to have been detained.
Initial U.S. reaction came from National Security Adviser Steven Hadley, traveling with President Bush in South Asia, who said a prerequisite for a free and fair election is not having opposition candidates beaten up and their supporters thrown in jail.
At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli called for the release of the detainees and an investigation of Thursday's events.
"They reinforce our fears that a free election process will be compromised, and we have called on and will continue to press the authorities in Belarus to release the individuals detained, and to conduct an impartial investigation into the beating of the leader of the opposition and to hold the perpetrators accountable," he said.
The spokesman said the United States is coordinating its approach on the election with others including European governments and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has a monitoring mission in Belarus.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs David Kramer, who visited Belarus last week, told the New York Times U.S. and European diplomats are considering punitive actions that would target Belarus officials who might be involved in election fraud.
Mr. Lukashenko, a Soviet-era collective farm official, has ruled the country with an increasingly authoritative hand since he was first elected in 1994.
A referendum in 2004, changing the country's constitution to allow him to run again, was widely condemned as having been rigged.
There are similar concerns about the March 19 voting, which follows a campaign in which Mr. Lukashenko's two challengers and their supporters have faced harassment and been barred from access to the state media.
National Security Adviser Hadley, who spoke Thursday in New Delhi, said there has not been enough outrage and international attention on Belarus in the run-up to the election.
In a gesture earlier this week, President Bush and adviser Hadley met at the White House with the widows of a pro-democracy businessman and an independent journalist from Belarus said by international investigators to have been killed by authorities because of their political activity.
White House Spokesman Scott McClellan said the United States shares that view about the circumstances of the deaths, and said President Bush stressed personal support for those seeking justice for the disappeared, and all those who seek freedom in Belarus.
President Lukashenko has responded sharply to international criticism. At Thursday's conference in Minsk, he spoke of dark forces, especially the United States, that he said are aligned against him and threatening the country's stability.
He said the United States had no grounds for teaching Belarus about human rights because of blood spilled in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. He also warned the domestic opposition would be dismantled in a tough way after the election.