MINSK, Belarus—Hundreds of women rallied across Belarus’s capital on Aug. 12 to protest a brutal police crackdown that has left hundreds injured and thousands detained while challenging election results extending the 26-year rule of the country’s authoritarian leader.
In several parts of Minsk, groups of women formed human chains, chanting “Shame!” and calling for an end to the crackdown in a bid to soften the ruthless official response to peaceful protests. Hesitant to use force against all-women rallies, police dispersed them without violence.
Protesters are contesting the official count showing President Alexander Lukashenko winning a sixth term with 80 percent of the Aug. 9 vote and the main opposition challenger with 10 percent. Crowds have taken to the streets every night since to demand a recount.
Authorities have responded with a crackdown that was unusually brutal even for Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule. Police have dispersed protesters with tear gas, stun grenades, water cannons, and rubber bullets and severely beat them with truncheons. Black-uniformed officers chased protesters into residential buildings and deliberately targeted journalists, beating many and breaking their cameras.
“We stand for a peaceful protest,” said Ksenia Ilyashevich, a 23-year-old IT specialist who joined other women at a Minsk protest on Aug. 12. “We worked up the courage and came out to rally. We stand here for all.”
Another demonstrator, 29-year-old Lyudmila Arutyunova, said: “We need to support each other when the authorities beat us.”
In three nights of protests, at least 6,000 people have been detained and hundreds injured, according to the official count, but even that high toll appeared to downplay the crackdown’s scope. 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,” said 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 real harassment, how can you treat your own people like that?” she asked, breaking into tears. “The real winners don’t behave like that.”
The 65-year-old Lukashenko has led the former Soviet state of 9.5 million people with an iron fist since 1994, relentlessly stifling dissent and winning the nickname of “Europe’s last dictator” in the West.
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 fueled broad anger, helping swell the opposition ranks — but that has only elicited a more forceful crackdown from the Belarusian leader.
Lukashenko has derided the political opposition as “sheep,” manipulated by foreign masters, 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 an Aug. 12 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 top potential challengers were barred from the race. She entered the race to replace her husband, an opposition blogger who aspired to run but has been in jail since his arrest in May.
But she left for neighboring Lithuania on Aug. 11 in an abrupt about-face, hours after submitting a formal request for a recount. In a video recorded before departure that her associates said was filmed under pressure from law enforcement officials, she urged her supporters to end protests.
Protesters have not heeded her call, and Maria Kolesnikova, a top figure in Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign, urged the government on Aug. 12 to “stop waging a war against its own people and begin a dialogue.”
The Interior Ministry acknowledged that police used firearms on Aug. 11 in the city of Brest, on the border with Poland, to stop protesters who attacked them with metal rods, leaving one person with a gunshot wound. One demonstrator died on Aug. 10 in Minsk, when an explosive device he attempted to throw at police exploded in his hands, according to the ministry.
On Aug. 11 in Minsk, reporters from several Belarusian and international outlets were beaten up. Officers seized memory cards from a group of photographers, including one for the AP, as they took shots of the police crackdown.
“A deliberate hunt for journalists with independent Belarusian and foreign media has begun,” said Boris Goretsky, vice president of the Belarusian Association of Journalists. He said 25 reporters are currently in custody, awaiting their turn in court, and three more have already been sentenced to 10 to 15 days in jail.
A prominent editor at a popular Belarusian newspaper disappeared on the night of Aug. 10. Yegor Martinovich, editor-in-chief of Nasha Niva, managed to send his colleagues an “SOS” message in the evening of Aug. 10, 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,” he told the AP.
The crackdown has drawn harsh criticism from the European Union and the United States.
Speaking during a trip to the Czech Republic on Aug. 12, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Belarusian vote was neither free nor fair and warned Lukashenko’s government against harming non-violent protesters.
“We want the people of Belarus to have the freedoms that they’re demanding,” he said.
The European Union foreign ministers scheduled a meeting on Aug. 14 to discuss the crackdown.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called the meeting a day after saying 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 slapped on Belarus in 2004, after Lukashenko freed political prisoners and allowed protests.
By Yuras Karmanau