Belarus starts to release prisoners as EU weighs sanctions

The release came as thousands formed human chains and marched in the streets for a fifth consecutive day of protests. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MINSK (REUTERS, AFP) - Belarus on Thursday (Aug 13) began releasing some of the thousands of people detained in a crackdown by strongman President Alexander Lukashenko that had prompted the European Union to consider imposing sanctions.

Some of those freed in the capital Minsk had bruises and described being tightly packed inside cells and complained of mistreatment, including beatings. A spokesman for the interior ministry declined immediate comment.

Their release came as thousands of people formed human chains and marched in the streets for a fifth consecutive day of protests against Mr Lukashenko, whom they accuse of rigging Sunday's presidential election to extend his 26-year-long rule.

The protesters were joined by workers from some state-run industrial plants that are the pride of Mr Lukashenko's Soviet-style economic model, media reported.

In Minsk, ambassadors from EU countries laid flowers at the site where one protester died, as a crowd cheered and chanted.

Mr Lukashenko, alleging a foreign-backed plot to destabilise the country, has dismissed the demonstrators as criminals and unemployed.

On Thursday, men and women, many wearing white and holding flowers, took to the streets of Minsk to protest against police brutality during four nights of unrest since Sunday's vote.

Protesters took to the streets across the country to contest the vote results but police used stun grenades, rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannon and, in at least one case, live fire to disperse protesters.

At least two people have died and hundreds have been wounded in the violence while nearly 7,000 have been arrested.


On Thursday, some demonstrators held placards reading "Change!" and "No violence" and sported white bracelets that have become a symbol of the opposition movement.

"We are against violence, against explosions on our streets, we are in favour of freeing all the detained," Nastya, a 26-year-old protester, told Agence France-Presse.

"We support honest elections, and an honest recount, it's necessary for votes to be recounted honestly."

Maria, a 35-year-old sales assistant, said she came out in her lunch break. "We want people to be able to protest peacefully, after all they didn't want anything bad, just a fair count of the votes."

A religious procession of various Christian denominations also took place in Minsk while workers at a number of factories across the country reportedly downed tools. Several dozen performers from the Belarusian State Philharmonic staged a rally in Minsk, singing and holding up letters of the alphabet reading: "They stole our voices."

Similar spontaneous rallies were reported in other cities.

"What can we do to help?" US entrepreneur Elon Musk said on Twitter in response to a call to help Belarussians.

Prominent Belarusians including Nobel Prize-winning author Svetlana Alexievich have condemned the violence and urged Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron grip since 1994, to step down.

The government said that 700 more people had been detained in a fourth night of clashes on Wednesday between police and protesters.

People outside the Okrestina detention centre, some in tears, waited in the hope of gleaning news of friends and relatives inside. Police and soldiers with machine guns drove them away when they got too close.

Mr Sergei, one of the freed detainees, said there had been 28 people in a cell that would normally contain five. Prisoners took turns to sleep, he said, and were given a single loaf of bread to share out over two days.

"They did not beat me in the cell, they took me out of the cell and beat me there," said Mr Sergei, who declined to give his last name. Reuters could not independently verify his account.

Mr Lukashenko has sought better relations with the West amid strained relations with traditional ally Russia.

The EU partially lifted sanctions, imposed over Mr Lukashenko's human rights record, in 2016, but could introduce new measures as early as this month.

A former Soviet collective farm manager, the 65-year-old Mr Lukashenko has ruled Belarus for more than a quarter of a century but faces increasing anger over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, a sluggish economy and human rights.

Ms Anna Krasulina, spokesman for opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who fled to neighbouring Lithuania earlier this week saying she feared for the safety of her children, said she expected Ms Tsikhanouskaya to release a video message later on Thursday.

Ms Michelle Bachelet, the UN human rights chief, has condemned the mass detentions "including bystanders, as well as minors, suggesting a trend of massive arrests in clear violation of international human rights standards".

Mr Vartan Grigoryan, another freed detainee, had traces of severe beatings on his face.

"I was seized, beaten, taken to prison and beaten again," he said. "After that, I felt bad and was taken to the hospital by ambulance."

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