Belarus authorities free detainees as protests grow


MINSK, Belarus —
Authorities have freed at least 2,000 people detained amid demonstrations across Belarus after a disputed presidential election as they sought Friday to stem rising public anger over a brutal police crackdown on peaceful protests and avoid Western sanctions.

Many who were released spoke of brutal beatings and other abuse by police, and some showed bruises on their bodies. Some of them wept as they embraced waiting relatives.

Demonstrators have swarmed the streets ever since Sunday’s election in which officials reported that President Alexander Lukashenko won 80% of the vote to extend his 26-year authoritarian hold on power in Belarus.

The protests continued Friday as thousands again rallied across the country and Lukashenko’s main challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who fled on Tuesday to neighboring Lithuania, posted a video in which she disputed the results of the vote and demanded that the government start a dialogue with demonstrators.

European Union foreign ministers are due to meet to discuss possible sanctions against Belarus.

Nearly 7,000 people have been detained and hundreds injured since Sunday as police have ferociously dispersed the largely peaceful demonstrations with stun grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets and severe beatings. At least one person has been killed.

Thousands of factory workers who previously formed the core of Lukashenko’s base have joined the protests, denouncing the police crackdown and demanding a new election, raising the prospect of a nationwide strike.

“Our entire shop voted against Lukashenko and then we suddenly learned that he won by a landslide,” 42-year-old assembly worker Dmitry Glukhovsky said outside the Minsk Automobile Plant, or MAZ. “They not only have cheated us but also beaten us up, and no one is going to accept that.”

He said that his assembly shop went on strike Friday to demand a new election. More than 1,000 workers could be seen in the factory’s yard, shouting “Down!” in a call for Lukashenko to resign.

Another factory worker, 45-year-old electrician Viktor Konovalov, said a friend was detained during the crackdown.

“People will not forgive that,” he said. “We don’t need their excuses, we need a new election and a new government.

At the Minsk Tractor Plant, or MTZ, about 1,000 workers also rallied to demand Lukashenko’s resignation and then marched toward the government headquarters. As they reached the center of the capital, the crowds grew and people stood applauding and motorists honked in support.

Workers also rallied at many other major factories in an unprecedented challenge to Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994 and earned the nickname of “Europe’s last dictator” for his relentless suppression of dissent.

Clearly nervous, the Belarusian leader warned Friday that the strikes would deepen the damage inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic and could lead to Belarus losing its niche in global markets.

“Everyone is fighting for markets, and if we stop we will never be able to resume production,” he said. “You must explain it to the people.”

He didn’t directly address the election and the protests, but Natalya Kochanova, speaker of the upper house of parliament, said late Thursday that more than 1,000 detainees had been released that day following Lukashenko’s order to law enforcement agencies to look more closely into the detentions.

“We don’t need a war, we don’t need a fight,” Kochanova said in televised remarks.

Valiantsin Stefanovich of the Viasna rights center confirmed that about 1,000 people were released from jails in Minsk and Zhodino.

“The authorities are obviously trying to de-escalate the situation and ease the tensions, fearing that the furious industrial workers will take to the streets all across Belarus,” Stefanovich said.

The Interior Ministry later said 2,000 detainees have been freed and more are to be released.

After a violent crackdown, police stood back Thursday as thousands of people formed ”lines of solidarity” in Minsk and other cities. Women, many of them dressed in white and carrying flowers and portraits of detained loved ones, spearheaded the human chains as motorists honked in support. Authorities again didn’t interfere with the demonstrations on Friday.

Dozens of military and police veterans posted videos in which they dumped their uniforms in the trash.

The demonstrations have spread even though the protest lacks leaders. Tsikhanouskaya urged her supporters to stop protests in an earlier video that her associates said was recorded under pressure from law enforcement officials while she was still in Minsk. The 37-year-old former teacher had joined the race to replace her husband, an opposition blogger, who has been jailed since May.

In her new video released Friday, Tsikhanouskaya again challenged the election results, saying that copies of protocols from precincts where the vote was counted fairly show her winning 60% to 70%. She urged the government to end violence and engage in dialogue with protesters.

“The Belarusians will never want to live under the current government,” she said. “The authorities have turned peaceful demonstrations into a bloodbath.”

She also announced she was setting up a coordination council to help ensure a “peaceful transition of power.”

A protester died Monday in Minsk when, according to the Interior Ministry, an explosive device he tried to throw at police blew up in his hand. Media reports challenged the ministry’s claim, alleging he was killed by police. The place where he died was quickly turned into a shrine, with hundreds of people, including European ambassadors, laying flowers there.

The authorities also said a detainee died in the southeastern city of Gomel, but the circumstances weren’t immediately clear.

The brutal suppression of protests drew harsh criticism in the West.

Ahead of the meeting of EU foreign ministers to discuss sanctions against Belarusian officials responsible for the crackdown, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said in Berlin that the peaceful protests “reflect the dissatisfaction, the anger and the desperation” of people in Belarus and that the crackdown was “completely unacceptable.”

To try to ease Western criticism, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said in a phone call with his Swiss counterpart that the country is ready for a “constructive and objective dialogue” with foreign partners on all issues related to the election and subsequent events.

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Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed.



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