7 Sep 2020

Scores arrested in Belarus as protesters defy riot police

8:20 am on 7 September 2020

Tens of thousands of people have marched through Minsk calling on Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to step down, in mass demonstrations that showed no sign of abating nearly a month after an election his opponents say was rigged.

Riot policemen stand guard during demonstration against police violence following recent protests to reject the presidential election results, in Minsk, Belarus.

A woman challenges riot police at the latest mass protest about the election result and police violence in Minsk, Belarus. Photo: AFP

Riot police charged protesters near the presidential palace, firing pepper spray and wielding batons.

The Belarusian authorities detained at least 100 protesters across the country, Russia's Interfax news agency reported, citing the interior ministry of Belarus.

Protesters accuse the authorities of rigging Lukashenko's re-election just over a month ago, sparking deadly mass unrest.

At least four people have died and hundreds have been injured since then, as the government tried to stamp out dissent.

A number of opposition figures have fled the country, On Saturday, activist Olga Kovalkova became the latest to say she had taken refuge in neighbouring Poland amid threats of imprisonment.

Lukashenko, in power since 1994, has accused Western nations of interfering.

Protesters, human rights activists and observers say riot police are brutally suppressing peaceful marches.

The former Soviet republic borders Russia, on which it depends heavily for energy and with which it historically has close ties, as well as Ukraine and EU states.

Protesters hold flags during demonstration against police violence following recent protests to reject the presidential election results, in Minsk, Belarus.

Protesters accuse riot police of brutally suppressing peaceful marches. Photo: AFP

What is the mood in Minsk?

Sunday has become the key day for street demonstrations since the rallies began, the BBC's Jonah Fisher reports from Minsk.

But riot police have intensified their efforts to intimidate and block the flow of people heading into the centre of city, while detaining those taking part in the demonstrations, Fisher says.

He adds that in the past few days the security forces - dressed all in black with balaclavas over their faces - targeted university students as they returned from their holidays, dragging some from the streets and university buildings into unmarked minivans.

Riot policemen stand guard during demonstration against police violence following recent protests to reject the presidential election results, in Minsk, Belarus.

 Viktor Tolochko / Sputnik

Photo: AFP

Pictures on social media on Sunday showed armoured personnel carriers and water cannon vehicles driving into the centre of Minsk, some heading for Independence Square, which had been cordoned off.

One protester in Minsk who gave her name as Lyudmila told BBC News the demonstrators were undeterred by the security forces.

"We are definitely not ready to get back to the life we had for many years now," she said.

"We finally feel like we matter because we've been living in apathy for way too long and now we just have this feeling of solidarity and we actually think that - well, I feel personally that - changes already are happening so that's definitely not the time to give up."

Protests have also been reported in other Belarusian cities and towns including Grodno, Mogilev and Gomel.

What happened to Olga Kovalkova?

Olga Kovalkova, a member of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya's staff, attends a press conference devoted to the opposition's creation of a Coordination Council to ensure a transfer of power on the tenth day of protests over president Alexander Lukashenko's disputed election win

Olga Kovalkova Photo: AFP

The activist said she had left for Poland as she would have faced a long jail term had she not agreed to leave Belarus.

Kovalkova said security forces had driven her to a border post where she was able to board a bus to Poland after the driver recognised her.

A spokesperson for Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said his country would offer support to victims of repression in Belarus.

On Friday, opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who has sought refuge in Lithuania, urged the UN to help halt the authorities' crackdown on protesters.

Tikhanovskaya, 37, represented the chief opposition to Lukashenko in the election, entering the presidential race after her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, and another candidate were jailed.

She said the opposition was demanding an end to the police violence, the immediate release of all political prisoners, and a free and fair election.

UN official accuses Belarus of torture

Last month, EU leaders agreed to impose sanctions - including asset freezes - on as yet unnamed Belarusian officials involved in alleged election-rigging, brutality and imprisonment of protesters. The exact sanctions are still being worked out.

6309569 16.08.2020 Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko delivers a speech during a rally of his supporters near the Government House in Independence Square in Minsk, Belarus.

Alexander Lukashenko Photo: AFP

The UN special rapporteur on Belarus, Anais Marin, said Lukashenko's re-election as president was "completely manipulated" and "people's votes were stolen".

She accused the Belarus police of torture, citing as one example a 16-year-old who was "so badly beaten up he was left in a coma".

"The authorities must release all those arbitrarily arrested," she said. "The government is waging an insane war against its own people."

Lukashenko has denied any allegations of vote-rigging. He has blamed some EU nations, in particular Poland and Lithuania, of trying to force regime change.

The 66-year-old has promised to defend Belarus.

On Thursday, he indicated he was open to moving closer to Russia, saying the protests had "prompted us to make relevant conclusions".

On at least two occasions he has been photographed near his residence in Minsk carrying a gun and being surrounded by his heavily armed security personnel.

- BBC /Reuters

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