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Thousands join new protests in Belarus capital as president eases crackdown

Today’s crowds in Minsk grew to more than 20,000, filling central Independence Square.

About 200 women march in solidarity with protesters in Minsk.
About 200 women march in solidarity with protesters in Minsk.
Image: AP/PA Images

Updated Aug 14th 2020, 6:24 PM

TENS OF THOUSANDS of people have flooded the heart of the Belarus capital in a show of anger over a brutal police crackdown on peaceful protesters that followed a disputed election, as authorities sought to ease rising public fury by freeing at least 2,000 who were jailed after earlier demonstrations.

Factory workers marched across the city shouting “Go away!” in a call for authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko to resign after 26 years of iron-fisted rule that was extended in an election on Sunday that protesters denounced as rigged.

Friday’s crowds in Minsk grew to more than 20,000, filling central Independence Square.

About a dozen soldiers guarding the nearby government headquarters lowered their riot shields in what the demonstrators saw as a sign of solidarity, and women rushed to embrace and kiss them.

Earlier, police did not interfere as the protesters marched across the city, reflecting Mr Lukashenko’s apparent attempt to assuage the opposition by stepping back from the violent police crackdowns seen across the country earlier this week.

The release by the Interior Ministry of about 2,000 of the nearly 7,000 people detained was seen as another move to defuse popular outrage, and it said more would be freed.

Many who were released spoke of beatings and other abuse by police, and some showed bruises on their bodies. Some wept as they embraced waiting relatives.

Interior Minister Yury Karayev said on state television: “I apologise for the injuries of random people at protests who got caught in the middle.”

Lukashenko’s opponents accuse him of rigging the election to defeat his main rival, popular opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who has left the ex-Soviet country for neighbouring Lithuania.

People came out to contest the election results and police used stun grenades, rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannon and, in at least one case, live fire to disperse the crowds.

At least two people have died and hundreds have been wounded in the violence while nearly 7,000 have been arrested.

V signs as women freed

Outside Minsk’s Okrestina detention centre, women detainees emerged first in small groups then male detainees, as hundreds of friends and relatives waited.

Many of the detainees looked tired and tearful but some raised V signs and punched the air.

Volunteers handed out food and blankets and offered rides home.

The constitutional court has so far released 569 names of people sentenced to brief jail terms, usually 15 days.

belarus-election Belarusian women rally in solidarity with protesters injured in the latest rallies against the results of the country's presidential election in Minsk Source: AP/PA Images

Amnesty International said detainees had testified that they received severe beatings and threats of rape.

Those detained have said they were held in overcrowded cells with insufficient food and water.

‘Change!’

Yesterday, demonstrators held placards reading “Change!” and “No violence” and wore white bracelets, one of the symbols of the opposition movement.

“We want to show that we, the women of our country, are against violence,” said Yekaterina, a 38-year-old hairdresser wearing a white sweater and jacket and holding a bunch of white flowers.

Large groups of workers at several major factories staged walk-outs, local media reported.

Russia’s foreign ministry yesterday claimed protests showed “clear attempts at outside interference”.

But leaders of neighbouring Poland and the Baltic states urged Lukashenko to “terminate the use of force against your people immediately”.

belarus-election An elderly couple look at a group of police officers standing ready to block gathering in a street Source: AP/PA Images

European Union foreign ministers were set to discuss possible new sanctions on Belarus at an extraordinary meeting today.

Prominent Belarusians have condemned the violence and urged Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron grip since 1994, to step down.

In an interview with RFE/RL, writer Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel literature prize, spoke of her shock at the “inhumane, satanic” actions of riot police and urged Lukashenko to go peacefully.

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‘Inhumane actions’

The interior ministry on Wednesday acknowledged that police deliberately fired on a group of protesters, wounding one.

Officials have confirmed the deaths of two protesters.

Police said the first died on Monday when an explosive device went off in his hand, while his widow told local media he was unarmed.

The Belarusian Investigative Committee, which probes major crimes, on Wednesday said a 25-year-old man died after being detained and sentenced to 10 days in prison in the southeastern city of Gomel.

His mother told local media he had heart problems and had gone out to see his girlfriend, not to take part in protests.

Foreign-controlled ‘sheep’

The protests broke out after authorities said Lukashenko won 80% of the vote in Sunday’s election to secure a sixth term.

Lukashenko, 65, has dismissed the demonstrators as foreign-controlled “sheep”.

belarus-election Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko listens during a meeting in Minsk yesterday Source: Nikolai Petrov/PA Images

The protest movement arose in support of Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old political novice who ran for president after potential opposition candidates including her husband were jailed.

The official results gave her 10% of the vote, but Tikhanovskaya said the election was rigged and claimed victory, demanding that Lukashenko hand over power.

She left for neighbouring Lithuania on Tuesday as allies said she came under official pressure.

© AFP 2020

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