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‘No more torture,’ say demonstrators as Belarus faces weekend of protests

Demonstrators raise their phones near the Government House in Independence Square during a protest rally against police violence at recent rallies of opposition supporters, who accuse strongman Alexander Lukashenko of falsifying the polls in the presidential election, in Minsk, Belarus, on August 14, 2020.
Demonstrators raise their phones near the Government House in Independence Square during a protest rally against police violence at recent rallies of opposition supporters, who accuse strongman Alexander Lukashenko of falsifying the polls in the presidential election, in Minsk, Belarus, on August 14, 2020. © Sergei Gapon, AFP
11 min

A large crowd gathered in Minsk on Saturday after Belarus’s opposition called for a weekend of fresh protests, while President Alexander Lukashenko reached out to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin amid mounting pressure from both demonstrators and other European leaders.

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Several thousand people gathered in the capital after Belarus's opposition called for more protests over Lukashenko's disputed re-election.

A large crowd had formed near the Pushkinskaya metro station in the capital, an AFP journalist said, in honour of a protester who died there during this week's police crackdown on demonstrators.

Demonstrators laid flowers at the site where Alexander Taraikovsky, 34, died on Monday during clashes between protesters and police a day after the election that Lukashenko claims to have won with 80 percent of the vote.

Many chanted "Leave!" and some held pictures of protesters with severe bruises, after accounts emerged of detained demonstrators being beaten and tortured.

Others carried signs reading "No to Violence" and "No More Torture".

More than 6,700 people were arrested in the crackdown and hundreds injured.

Officials have confirmed two deaths in the unrest, including Taraikovsky who they say died when an explosive device went off in his hand during a protest, and another man who died in custody after being arrested in the southeastern city of Gomel.

Taraikovsky's funeral was being held on Saturday and a "March for Freedom" is planned in central Minsk on Sunday, after main opposition figure Svetlana Tikhanovskaya called for a weekend of new demonstrations.

Are all the protests in Belarus the begining of the end for Lukashenko, FRANCE 24's Douglas Herbert
03:14

A phone call to Moscow

Facing the biggest challenge to his rule since taking power in 1994, Lukashenko made an unusual public plea Saturday to speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"The aggression against Belarus is developing. We need to contact Putin, the president of Russia, so that I can talk with him now. Because this is already a threat not only to Belarus," Lukashenko told government officials in a televised meeting.

He said Belarus was facing "external interference" and that a "union state" that links the two countries' economies and militaries needed "protection".

Lukashenko claimed that Putin offered full assistance to ensure security in Belarus as thousands held peaceful protests against his rule.

"To talk about the military element, we have an agreement with Russia... Such situations fall under that agreement," Lukashenko told defence chiefs, quoted by Belta state news agency.

"I had a long, substantial conversation today with the Russian president... We agreed that at our very first request, comprehensive help will be given to ensure the security of Belarus."

The Kremlin confirmed that the two leaders had spoken by phone, saying both sides were confident the situation would be "resolved soon".

Lukashenko also said on Saturday that he did not need outside mediators to solve the situation in Belarus, state news agency Belta reported.

"We do not need any foreign governments, mediators," Lukashenko was quoted as saying.

'Peaceful mass gatherings'

Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old political novice who ran after other opposition candidates including her husband were jailed, accuses Lukashenko of rigging the vote and has demanded he step down so new elections can be held.

She left the country on Tuesday for neighbouring Lithuania, with her allies saying she came under official pressure, but on Friday re-emerged with the call for a weekend of "peaceful mass gatherings" in cities across the country.

She is also demanding authorities be held to account for a police crackdown on post-election protests that saw more than 6,700 people arrested. 

Police have used rubber bullets, stun grenades and, in at least one case, live rounds to disperse the crowds, with hundreds injured. 

Officials have confirmed two deaths in the unrest, including Taraikovsky who they say died when an explosive device went off in his hand during a protest, and another man who died in custody after being arrested in the southeastern city of Gomel.

On Friday authorities began releasing hundreds of those arrested and many emerged from detention with horrific accounts of beatings and torture.

Factory workers join protests

Amnesty International condemned "a campaign of widespread torture and other ill-treatment by the Belarusian authorities who are intent on crushing peaceful protests by any means".

In some of the biggest demonstrations yet, thousands marched in Minsk on Friday to denounce the police violence and demand Lukashenko step down.

In euphoric scenes on Independence Square in Minsk, protesters hugged and kissed young interior ministry troops guarding a government building and put flowers in their anti-riot shields.

Unlike the scenes of violent detentions days earlier, police stood by quietly.

Large groups of workers from huge tractor and automobile factories downed tools for the first time and marched to the central square, chanting for Lukashenko to "Leave!" and "Long live Belarus!".

Protesters danced and sang and waved lit-up mobile phones before gradually dispersing over the evening without police making arrests.

European Union ministers agreed Friday to draw up a list of targets in Belarus for a new round of sanctions in response to the post-election crackdown.

Sweden's Foreign Minister Ann Linde said in a tweet that the "EU will now initiate a process of sanctions against those responsible for the violence, arrests and fraud in connection with the election".

Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron grip since 1994, has dismissed the demonstrators as foreign-controlled "sheep" and "people with a criminal past who are now unemployed".

In a televised meeting on Friday he claimed people had arrived from Poland, Ukraine and the Netherlands as well as from Russian opposition groups, and were using protesters as "cannon fodder".

Meeting security chiefs, he urged restraint against protesters, saying: "If someone has already fallen and is lying there, you shouldn't beat him up."

Tikhanovskaya on Friday announced the creation of a Coordination Council to ensure a transfer of power, asking foreign governments to "help us in organising a dialogue with Belarusian authorities".

She demanded the authorities release all detainees, remove security forces from the streets and open criminal cases against those who ordered the crackdown.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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