Thousands of protesters have been participating in peaceful demonstrations in Belarus over President Alexander Lukashenko’s disputed re-election and an ensuing brutal police crackdown.
Protesters formed human chains and marched on Thursday in a show of solidarity with people injured in protests against an election many say was rigged to extend the rule of the country’s authoritarian leader.
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.
Protesters took to the streets across the country to contest the vote results but police used stun grenades, rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannon and, in at least one case, live fire to disperse protesters.
At least two people have died and hundreds have been wounded in the violence while nearly 7,000 have been arrested.
Lines of solidarity
In several areas of Minsk, large groups of women and some men formed long “lines of solidarity” on Thursday morning. More than 100 women carrying flowers and portraits of their loved ones detained during protests gathered in the southwestern part of the city, where police had shot rubber bullets at people chanting and clapping on balconies the night before.
“Belarusians have seen the villainous face of this government. I argued with my husband and voted for Lukashenko. And this is what I got in the end, I can’t find my relatives in prisons,” said Valentina Chailytko, 49, whose husband and son were detained during protests on Sunday. Chailytko still can’t find any information about their whereabouts.
For a while, all-female “lines of solidarity” stood unchallenged by police, which then dispersed some of them without violence.
Thousands of people have rallied across Belarus since Sunday, demanding a recount of the ballot that gave Lukashenko a landslide victory with 80 percent of the vote and his top opposition challenger only 10 percent.
Police moved aggressively to break up the protests with batons, stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets.
One protester died on Monday in Minsk, and scores were injured. Radio Liberty in Belarus reported that one more man died in a hospital in the city of Gomel, southeastern Belarus, after being detained by police.
The protests appeared to take a more peaceful turn on Wednesday.
Russian internet giant Yandex said on Thursday that armed individuals had entered its offices in the Belarusian capital Minsk.
The company said it was trying to get more information about the incident and that the armed individuals had barred employees inside from leaving the building.
The crackdown on protesters drew harsh criticism in the West.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that the 27-nation bloc would review its relations with Belarus and consider “measures against those responsible for the observed violence, unjustified arrests and falsification of election results”.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the election in Belarus wasn’t “free and fair” and urged the government to refrain from violence against peaceful protesters.
“The core of these so-called protesters are people with a criminal past and (those who are) currently unemployed,” the state-run Belta news agency quoted Lukashenko as saying at a meeting with security officials on Wednesday.
Belarus’ Investigative Committee launched a criminal probe into mass rioting, a charge that carries lengthy prison terms.
This year the economic damage caused by the coronavirus and the president’s swaggering response to the pandemic, which he airily dismissed as “psychosis”, has fuelled broad anger, helping swell the opposition ranks and prompting the Belarusian leader to unleash a renewed crackdown on dissent.
Protesters on Thursday said they were undeterred. “We’re not afraid, there’s no fear,” Alla Pronich, 38, said.
“To audacious rigging (of the election), to violence, to flash-bang grenades the authorities use we respond with solidarity and a peaceful protest. It is all we have,” Pronich said.