MINSK, Belarus — Thousands of people were back on the streets of Belarus’ capital on Thursday to keep protesting against a vote that extended the 26-year rule of the country’s authoritarian leader, and against a brutal crackdown on peaceful demonstrations.
In several areas of Minsk, hundreds of women formed long “lines of solidarity,” carrying flowers and portraits of loved ones detained during protests. The human chains grew quickly, and by early afternoon filled the main central squares and avenues. Motorists blared horns in support.
Nearly 7,000 people have been detained and hundreds have been injured in a ruthless police clampdown on demonstrators protesting the official results of Sunday’s ballot that gave President Alexander Lukashenko 80% of the vote, and his top opposition challenger only 10%. Police have cracked down in full force, breaking up the protests with stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets and severely beating many.
“Belarusians have seen the villainous face of this government. I argued with my husband and voted for Lukashenko. And this is what I got in the end — I can’t find my relatives in prisons,” said Valentina Chailytko, 49, whose husband and son were detained during protests on Sunday.
“I wonder how Lukashenko could keep ruling,” said Chailytko who has been unable to find any information about their whereabouts.
One protester died Monday in Minsk, and scores were injured. The authorities confirmed that a detainee also died in the southeastern city Gomel, but the circumstances of his death weren’t immediately clear.
The brutality and scope of the police crackdown was remarkable even for Lukashenko’s iron-fisted rule. He has won the nickname of “Europe’s last dictator” in the West for his relentless suppression of dissent.
The Interior Ministry reported 700 new detentions late Wednesday and overnight, bring the total number of detainees to 6,700 since Sunday. Belarus’ Investigative Committee launched a criminal probe into the organization of mass rioting — a charge that could carry prison terms of up to 15 years for those found guilty.
The ministry said 103 police officers have been injured since Sunday and 28 of them were hospitalized. In Minsk and Baranovichi, unidentified suspects ran over traffic policemen with their vehicles on Wednesday before being detained.
The brutal suppression of protests drew harsh criticism in the West.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that the 27-nation bloc would review its relations with Belarus and consider “measures against those responsible for the observed violence, unjustified arrests and falsification of election results.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the election in Belarus wasn’t free or fair and urged the government to refrain from violence against peaceful protesters.
After three days of ruthless crackdown, police scaled down their response on Wednesday. In many parts of Minsk, the all-female “lines of solidarity” stood unchallenged for some time before police dispersed some of them without violence. Such peaceful demonstrations swarmed the city Thursday, but police refrained from immediately dispersing them.
Lukashenko has derided the political opposition as “sheep” manipulated by foreign masters and vowed to continue taking a tough position on protests. “The core of these so-called protesters are people with a criminal past and (those who are) currently unemployed,” he said Wednesday.
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 and posing an unprecedented challenge to Lukashenko.
Protesters on Thursday said they were undeterred by police violence. “We’re not afraid, there’s no fear,” Alla Pronich, 38, told The Associated Press.
“To audacious rigging (of the election), to violence, to flash-bang grenades the authorities use we respond with solidarity and a peaceful protest. It is all we have,” Pronich said.
Daria Litvinova and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.
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