Belarus Mass Rallies, Police Data Leak Keep Pressure on Lukashenko

September 21, 2020Updated: September 21, 2020

MINSK, Belarus—More than 100,000 Belarusians marched through the capital Minsk on Sept. 20 in the sixth straight weekend of protests against President Alexander Lukashenko, keeping pressure on the veteran leader to quit.

Many walked in a vast column that stretched several miles, decked out in red-and-white opposition colors and chanting “go away,” as helmeted riot police patrolled the streets with water canons on hand, a witness said.

Several protesters were dragged away from the crowd by security forces. In the city center, riot police rhythmically beat their shields as a warning, while several people threw glass bottles at them.

Videos shared by local media outlets showed security forces in helmets or masks hauling protesters off the streets in simultaneous protests in other cities.

The Eastern European country was plunged into turmoil following a presidential election in August that Lukashenko says he won by a landslide but the opposition says was rigged. In power for 26 years, the former Soviet collective farm manager has shown scant inclination to resign, buoyed by support from Russia.

The European Union vowed weeks ago to impose sanctions on Minsk for alleged election fraud and human rights abuses but is likely to miss its own Sept. 21 deadline for action.

Police Data Leaked

In tandem with the protests, anonymous hackers leaked the personal data of 1,000 police officers in retaliation for a crackdown in which thousands of people have been detained, many complaining of beatings and torture in jail.

The government has denied abusing detainees.

The loyalty of the security forces is crucial to Lukashenko’s ability to cling to power. Their faces are often obscured by masks, balaclavas, or riot helmets. Some protesters have torn the masks off some officers.

“As the arrests continue, we will continue to publish data on a massive scale,” according to a statement distributed by the opposition news channel Nexta Live on the messaging app Telegram. “No one will remain anonymous, even under a balaclava.”

The government said it would find and punish those responsible for leaking the data, which was widely distributed on Telegram channels on the evening of Sept. 19.

“The forces, means, and technologies at the disposal of the internal affairs bodies make it possible to identify and prosecute the overwhelming majority of those guilty of leaking personal data on the Internet,” said Olga Chemodanova, the spokeswoman for the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Strategic Buffer

At least 80 people were detained across the country on Sept. 20, the human rights group Spring-96 said.

The Russian news agency TASS said at least 10 people had been held, citing police; the government typically releases the final figures the following day.

Footage shared by Belarusian media outlets showed police dragging people from the front of a column of protesters who had linked arms in the western city of Brest, and firing spray from a bottle into the face of one of them. One security officer fired a warning shot into the air in a separate incident.

Metro stations were closed in central Minsk and the mobile internet disrupted for several hours.

The government said 390 women were detained for taking part in a protest on Sept. 19. Most have been released.

Minsk reacted angrily on Sept. 19 to reports that Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leading opposition candidate in August’s election, could soon meet EU foreign ministers.

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova also criticised the EU for inviting Tsikhanouskaya to the ministerial meeting as well as for considering sanctions against Minsk, saying Brussels is trying to “rock the boat” in Belarus.

Russia sees Belarus as a strategic buffer state against the EU and NATO and has accused the United States of fomenting revolution in its neighbor.

Moscow agreed to give a $1.5 billion loan to prop up Lukashenko’s government following a meeting between him and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Belarus will channel about $330 million of its new loan to cover its outstanding debt to Russian gas giant Gazprom, Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov was quoted by TASS as saying.