Scores Detained as Students March against Belarus President

September 1, 2020 Updated: September 1, 2020

KYIV, Ukraine—Authorities in Belarus detained scores of protesters on Tuesday as university students took to the streets of the capital of Minsk on the first day of classes to demand that authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko resign after an election the opposition has denounced as rigged.

Hundreds of students gathered outside universities across Minsk and marched through the city center to the Education Ministry, continuing a fourth straight week of mass post-election protests.

Belarus protest
Police detain students during a protest against presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus, on Sept. 1, 2020 (AP Photo).

Lukashenko, who has run the ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million with an iron fist for 26 years, has dismissed protesters as Western puppets. The demonstrators chanted for him to “Go away!” and held banners demanding freedom for political prisoners.

Police moved to break up the crowds and detained some of the protesters. Belarusian media reported dozens of students were detained. Minsk police confirmed there were detentions but didn’t say how many.

Belarus Protests
Police detain a student during a protest against presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus, on Sept. 1, 2020. (AP Photo)

According to the Viasna human rights center, several university professors also were detained and riot police beat many of the detained students. Valentin Stefanovich, a human rights advocate with the center, called the beatings “an untoward reaction of the authorities to a peaceful protest.”

“Students and universities in general are a highly explosive group,” Stefanovich told The Associated Press. “The authorities are really scared of strikes starting in universities and are carrying out demonstrative intimidation acts.”

After a ferocious crackdown on demonstrators immediately after the Aug. 9 election drew international outrage, the government has avoided large-scale violence and sought to end the protests with threats and the selective jailing of activists.

Several organizers of strikes at top industrial plants have been detained. On Tuesday, people started gathering near several large plants to support the striking workers.

Prosecutors have opened a criminal probe of the opposition’s Coordination Council set up after the election to try to negotiate a transition of power. They accuse its members of undermining national security.

Last week, courts handed 10-day jail sentences to two council members and summoned several others for questioning, including Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 Nobel literature laureate. Another council member, Lilia Vlasova, was detained Monday.

Authorities on Monday also denied entry to the Roman Catholic archbishop of Minsk and Mohilev, who was returning to Belarus from Poland. Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz strongly criticized the Belarusian police last week.

On Tuesday, Lukashenko accused Konrdusiewicz of “delving into politics and dragging believers, Catholics” into it and “receiving orders from Poland.”

The United States and the European Union have criticized the Aug. 9 election that gave Lukashenko a sixth term as neither free nor fair and urged Belarusian authorities to begin a dialogue with the opposition.

The president bristled at the idea and alleged the opposition would wage “a massacre” on his allies if it takes power in Belarus.

“It wouldn’t be a purge, like some say. It would be a massacre,” he said Tuesday.

The crackdown immediately following the election left nearly 7,000 people detained, hundreds injured by police rubber bullets, stun grenades, and beatings, and at least three protesters dead. Police then stopped interfering with the demonstrations, but last week they again cranked up the pressure and began breaking up rallies.

The government also cracked down on the media, deporting some foreign journalists and revoking the accreditation of many Belarusian journalists. Two Moscow-based Associated Press journalists who were covering the protests were deported to Russia on Saturday. In addition, the AP’s Belarusian journalists were told by the government that their press credentials had been revoked.

The Belarusian Association of Journalists said accreditations also were taken away from 17 Belarusians working for several other media, including Germany’s ARD television, the BBC, Reuters, and Agence France-Presse, and U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty said five of its journalists lost their accreditation.

U.S. and EU officials have strongly condemned the media crackdown.

The detention of hundreds of demonstrators didn’t deter the opposition from mounting another massive rally Sunday, which saw an estimated 100,000 people in the streets of Minsk amid a heavy police presence.

by Yuras Karmanau