KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Scores of people were detained in Belarus on Sunday during protests against the country’s authoritarian leader, who won his sixth term in office in a vote widely seen as rigged, a Belarusian rights group said.
Tens of thousands of protesters rallied in the Belarusian capital Minsk for the 10th consecutive Sunday, demanding the resignation of President Alexander Lukashenko, who has run the country with an iron fist for 26 years. The Viasna human rights center estimated that around 100,000 people took part in the protest, which the police moved to disperse with water cannons, stun grenades and truncheons.
Rallies also took place in other cities, including Brest, Vitebsk and Grodno.
Dozens of protesters sustained injuries, according to Viasna. The group released a list of protesters detained across the country on its website that by Sunday evening had more than 300 names on it.
“This has been the harshest dispersal of a Sunday march since August,” Viasna leader Ales Bialiatski told The Associated Press.
Mass protests have rocked Belarus for over two months, with the largest ones held on Sundays and drawing up to 200,000 people. The unprecedented unrest was triggered by the results of the Aug. 9 presidential election that handed Lukashenko a victory with 80% of the vote.
His main challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, got 10%. She and her supporters refused to recognize the results, saying the outcome of the vote was manipulated.
In the first days of the protests, Belarusian authorities cracked down brutally on protesters, with police detaining thousands and injuring scores with truncheons, rubber bullets and stun grenades. The violent response to the rallies prompted international outrage.
The government has since scaled down on the violence but has maintained the pressure, detaining hundreds of protesters and prosecuting top activists. Prominent members of the opposition’s Coordination Council, formed to push for a transition of power, have been arrested or forced to leave the country.
At least 35 journalists have been detained during protests on Sunday, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists. Police and other security forces blocked off central areas of Minsk, and military trucks and armored carriers were seen in the city before the rally.
On Saturday, Lukashenko visited a prison to talk to opposition activists, who have been jailed for challenging his reelection. Lukashenko’s office said that “the goal of the president was to hear everyone’s opinion.”
Commentators said the move was an attempt to imitate a dialogue that would allow Lukashenko to drown the protests in talks and reduce tensions.
Following detentions and beatings during Sunday’s protest, Bialiatski of the Viasna center said that “instead of a dialogue, Belarusians received another strong-arm dispersal (of a protest) with the beaten and the injured.”
Tsikhanouskaya, who is in exile in Lithuania after leaving Belarus in fear for her safety and that of her children, said Sunday that any dialogue with the authorities should start only after they stop detentions and release political prisoners.
“We are all working together to stop forceful detentions, release political prisoners and set a time and a place for talks. If these demands are not met, then they are trying to deceive us,” Tsikhanouskaya said in a statement.
She encouraged Belarusians on Sunday to continue peaceful protests.
“We will continue to peacefully and persistently come out to marches and demand (what we want) — new free and transparent elections,” Tsikhnaouskaya said.