Hundreds rallied across Belarus’ capital on Wednesday to protest a brutal police crackdown that left hundreds injured and thousands detained while challenging election results extending the rule of the country’s authoritarian leader.
In several parts of Minsk, groups formed human chains, chanting “Shame!” Police moved to disperse them, stopping short of the violent tactics they have used previously.
Protesters are contesting the official count showing President Alexander Lukashenko winning a sixth term with 80 percent of Sunday’s vote and the main opposition challenger receiving 10 percent.
Crowds have taken to the streets every night since to demand a recount.
Police have dispersed protesters with tear gas, stun grenades, water cannons and rubber bullets. Officers deliberately targeted journalists, beating many and breaking their cameras.
“We stand for a peaceful protest,” Ksenia Ilyashevich, a 23-year-old IT specialist, said.
“We worked up the courage and came out to rally. … Hundreds and thousands of Belarusians express solidarity with us, but are afraid [to come out]. We stand here for all.”
In three nights of protests, at least 6,000 people have been detained and hundreds injured, according to the official count.
Anguished relatives were besieging prisons across Belarus trying to find their missing relatives.
“Even those who were loyal saw the real face of this government during the past three days,” according to 63-year-old Galina Vitushko, who stood outside a jail in Minsk trying to find her son, a 43-year old doctor. She said that she desperately needs to give him insulin since he has diabetes.
“It’s a real harassment, how can you treat your own people like that?” she asked, breaking into tears.
The 65-year-old Lukashenko has ruled the country with an iron fist since 1994, relentlessly stifling dissent and winning the nickname of “Europe’s last dictator” in the West.
Lukashenko has derided his political opposition as “sheep” and vowed to continue clamping down on demonstrations.
“The core of these so-called protesters are people with a criminal past and [those who are] currently unemployed,” Lukashenko said during a Wednesday meeting with security officials.
His top challenger, a 37-year-old former teacher and political novice Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, managed to unite fractured opposition groups and draw tens of thousands to her campaign rallies after two potential challengers were barred from the race.
But she fled to neighboring Lithuania on Tuesday in an abrupt about-face, hours after publicly disputing the vote results and submitting a formal request for a recount.
She urged her supporters to end rallies in a video statement her associates said was recorded under pressure from law enforcement officials.
Her departure didn’t discourage protesters.
One demonstrator died Monday in Minsk when an explosive device he attempted to throw at police exploded in his hands, according to the Interior Ministry.
On Tuesday, a protester in the city of Brest on the border with Poland was shot and wounded when officers fired on protesters who attacked them with metal rods.
In Minsk, reporters from several Belarusian and international outlets were beaten up. Officers seized memory cards from a group of photographers as they took shots of the police crackdown.
“A deliberate hunt for journalists with independent Belarusian and foreign media has begun,” according to Boris Goretsky, vice president of the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
He said 25 reporters are currently in custody, awaiting their turn to face a court, and three more were sentenced to 10 to 15 days of administrative arrest.
Yegor Martinovich, editor-in-chief of a popular Belarusian newspaper, disappeared on Monday night. He managed to send his colleagues an SOS message on Monday evening, and no one has heard from him since.
Belarusian human rights group Viasna said many injured protesters were afraid to seek medical help, fearing prosecution for participating in the rallies.
Eduard Kukhterin, a 56-year-old publisher, was injured with two rubber bullets overnight as he was entering his apartment building, but decided not to go to a hospital.
“Paramedics warned me that if I go to the hospital, I will end up behind bars as a protester. Medical workers report such injuries to the law enforcement,” Kukhterin told the AP.
The crackdown has drawn harsh criticism from the European Union and the United States.
“We watched an election that we were very concerned about,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday during a visit to the Czech Republic. “It wasn’t held in a way that was free and fair.”
The European Union foreign ministers scheduled a meeting on Friday to discuss the crackdown.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that the 27-nation bloc could impose sanctions against “those responsible for the observed violence, unjustified arrests, and falsification of election results.”
In 2016, the European Union lifted most of the sanctions it had slapped on Belarus in 2004 after Lukashenko freed political prisoners and allowed protests.
The Western Journal has reviewed this Associated Press story and may have altered it prior to publication to ensure that it meets our editorial standards.
Truth and Accuracy
We are committed to truth and accuracy in all of our journalism. Read our editorial standards.