Top challenger in Belarusian presidential race detained

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In this picture taken on Thursday, June 11, 2020, Viktor Babariko, candidate presidential elections and the former head of Belgazprombank, speaks to media during a news conference in Minsk, Belarus. Belarusian authorities have taken control of a Russia-owned commercial bank that was led by a man who is now running to challenge Belarus authoritarian president. President Alexander Lukashenko, who is seeking a sixth term in the Aug. 9 election, has accused Belgazprombank chief executive Viktor Babariko of corruption and called him a scoundrel. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

Belarusian authorities on Thursday detained the former head of a Russia-owned commercial bank who has emerged as the top challenger to Belarus’ authoritarian leader in the August election, a move that drew thousands of protesters to the streets.

President Alexander Lukashenko, who is seeking a sixth term in the Aug. 9 vote, has accused Belgazprombank former chief executive Viktor Babariko of corruption and called him a “scoundrel.”

On Thursday, investigators detained Babariko after questioning him on allegations of tax evasion and money laundering. Babariko's detention follows Sunday's searches at the bank and the arrest of its 15 executives.

Babariko, who has yet to formally register for the presidential race, has denounced the authorities’ actions as part of an intimidation campaign. His campaign already has collected 425,000 signatures, while a minimum of 100,000 is needed for the nomination.

The Belarusian leader has ruled the nation of 9.5 million with an iron fist for more than a quarter-century, relentlessly cracking down on the opposition and independent media. Babariko is widely seen as the strongest of a dozen candidates who announced their intention to join the race.

Ivan Tertel, the head of the State Control Commitee, said that Babariko was detained because he allegedly “attempted to pressure witnesses and conceal the trace of the previous crimes.” Tertel alleged that Belgazprombank had allegedly channeled over $430 million to a Latvian bank.

Babariko's home was searched and his lawyers said they haven't been given access to him. Observers say that his detention reflects Lukashenko's nervousness.

“Babariko has been able to accumulate snowballing protest votes, and Lukashenko has felt a real threat of election defeat for the first time in quarter-century,” independent Minsk-based political analyst Valery Karbalevich said.