Belarus police fire water cannon, detain anti-Lukashenko protesters

Opposition supporters parade through the streets during a rally to protest the country's presidential inauguration in Minsk on September 27, 2020.
Opposition supporters parade through the streets during a rally to protest the country's presidential inauguration in Minsk on September 27, 2020. © TUT.BY, AFP

Belarussian police on Sunday used water cannon to disperse protesters in the capital Minsk as tens of thousands marched to demand the release of political prisoners.

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Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets despite warnings they could face prison. The opposition movement calling for an end to strongman Alexander Lukashenko's rule has kept up a wave of large-scale demonstrations since his controversial election win on August 9, with around 100,000 or more people rallying every Sunday.

Ahead of the march, the government sought to complicate media coverage of opposition rallies against Lukashenko's regime, withdrawing the accreditation of all foreign journalists. On Sunday, internet and mobile phone services were disrupted.

But pictures and videos posted on social media showed huge crowds gathering in Minsk and protesters marching towards a detention centre, with some carrying portraits of victims of police abuse. 

Other protesters waved red-and-white opposition flags and beat drums. 

"Set them free!" demonstrators chanted after they reached the notorious jail on Okrestin Street which some have dubbed a "torture chamber".

After the march had begun in the centre of the capital, police confirmed they had moved in on the protest, which like others was considered an illegal gathering.

Interior ministry spokeswoman Olga Chemodanova told AFP that water cannon had been used in Minsk and that there had been detentions, but provided no further details.

'Terrible screams'

Rights group Viasna said more than 100 demonstrators were detained in Minsk and elsewhere. Protester Natalia Samotyia said she saw police beat up protesters.  "I stood on a bridge and heard people's terrible screams," she told AFP. 

Another protester, Yakov Baranovsky, said police blasted him and another demonstrators with water cannon, forcing them to seek shelter. "Everything has been done to make people disperse," the 51-year-old engineer said.

Belarusians this week received official text messages saying they could face criminal responsibility for taking part in "unsanctioned" rallies. "Do not make a mistake!" the interior ministry said.

Since the start of the post-election crackdown in which several people have died, harrowing accounts have emerged of abuse in the Minsk jail. Many said they had been tortured, beaten and humiliated there. 

According to the Viasna, there are now 77 "political prisoners" in Belarus including opposition blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, who was not allowed to run for president, and opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova, who ripped up her passport to prevent authorities from deporting her.

Also on the list is Belarusian-US strategist Vitali Shkliarov, who has worked on US Senator Bernie Sanders's presidential campaign and advised the Russian opposition. He was arrested in late July as he arrived to see his elderly parents.

'Gesture of support'

On Friday, the United States and the EU hit Belarus with long-awaited sanctions for rigging the vote and orchestrating the crackdown on protesters, targeting key officials -- but not Lukashenko himself.

Minsk swiftly announced tit-for-tat "counter sanctions" against the EU, although it was not clear what form these would take or what or who they would target.

After Tikhanovsky was jailed, his wife Svetlana Tikhanovskaya ran in his place and claimed victory over Lukashenko.

Since taking refuge in the EU member state Lithuania, the 38-year-old political novice has been engaged in a diplomatic push to drum up support for the embattled Belarusian opposition.

She has already met French President Emmanuel Macron and will travel to Germany for a meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday.

Student Dmitry Demeshkevich, who planned to take to the streets on Sunday, told AFP he was aware of the sanctions and Tikhanovskaya's upcoming talks with Merkel.

He said the sanctions were a gesture of support but "nothing more" as it was not clear if the Western punitive measures including travel bans would work.

"It's better to begin talks with Lukashenko over his exit," he continued. "Europe can be a mediator but it's us who should get him to quit."

Lukashenko, who has ruled ex-Soviet Belarus for 26 years, has accused Western countries and NATO of supporting protesters and trying to destabilise the country.

He put his military on high alert after the vote and Belarus this month will host war games with several other ex-Soviet countries including Russia in what is being touted as a show of force against NATO.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

 

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