MINSK, BELARUS (AP) — Police in Belarus dispersed protesters who gathered on the capital’s central square on Wednesday, detaining dozens in an effort to end weeks of demonstrations challenging the re-election of the country’s authoritarian ruler.
The crackdown in Independence Square on Wednesday came on the 18th straight day of protests pushing for the resignation of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.
The Belarusian leader who has ruled the nation of 9.5 million for 26 years has dismissed the protesters as Western puppets and refused to engage in dialogue with the opposition contesting his August 9 re-election to a sixth term.
After a brutal crackdown on demonstrators in the first days of post-election protests, which caused international outrage and helped swell protesters’ numbers, the authorities changed tactics and let daily demonstrations go unhindered for nearly two weeks. The government, meanwhile, has maintained pressure on the opposition with threats and selective jailing of its leaders.
Wednesday’s police action marks the return to force, albeit on a much smaller scale compared to the post-election crackdown, when nearly 7,000 people were detained, hundreds were injured and at least three protesters died.
Shortly after several hundred protesters gathered on the Independence Square for an evening protest that has become a daily occurrence, waving their red-and-white flags and chanting “Go away!” to push for Lukashenko’s resignation, police trucks pulled in.
Officers grabbed demonstrators and dragged them into trucks, tearing away their flags and placards.
Several dozen protesters found refuge in a church facing the square, and police blocked its doors to keep them inside while they moved to disperse the demonstration.
Bishop Jury Kasabucki condemned the police action as a violation of freedom of conscience and religion and an insult to believers. “It’s a clear act of intimidation,” said Valiantsin Stefanovich of the Viasna Rights Centre.
“The authorities have stopped beatings, but fear and threats remain their main weapon.”
He said that police on Wednesday also detained protesters in another district of Minsk and in the city of Brest on the border with Poland.