14 August, 2020 | The Washington Post, BBC NEWS
A sketch depicting Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is pictured during a march Friday in Warsaw, Poland, in solidarity with Belarusian people after the results of the Belarusian presidential election. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)
AFTER WEEKS of peaceful protests, the courageous people of Belarus just got their heads bashed in. Legs and arms were also battered in a night of beatings of detainees by the KGB security service, according to eyewitnesses. The bloodshed, a last-gasp effort by President Alexander Lukashenko to remain in power after a rigged election, has further ignited nonviolent protest across the country. It is time for Lukashenko to depart and for Belarus to honor the dignity of its people with free and fair elections.
Horrific tales of maltreatment began to seep out of the prisons on Thursday after thousands were detained during protests of the stolen presidential election 9 August, in which Lukashenko claimed to have received 80 percent of the vote, but the real winner was Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the charismatic leader of the opposition. Men released from detention reported they were beaten with truncheons and fists, while women said they had been stripped naked and subjected to beatings while listening to the screams of other victims.
The reports of violence ignited a fresh wave of peaceful protests in Belarus on Friday. The demonstrations provided still further evidence of a grass-roots uprising against Lukashenko’s 26-year-old dictatorship. At the huge Minsk tractor and auto factories, workers went on strike and demanded Lukashenko’s ouster. He sneered that only 20 people protested and then “turned around and went back to work.” Not true: Videos showed that thousands of people were marching in Minsk and other cities. White ribbons, flowers, and balloons have become a symbol of the protests.
Belarus’s main opposition figure, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, has called for an end to violence against protesters while urging more rallies this weekend. Calling on mayors across Belarus to organize “peaceful mass gatherings” on Saturday and Sunday, Tsikhanouskaya said: “Belarusians will never want to live with the previous government again. The majority do not believe in his victory.”
Amnesty International defines actions against detainees as “widespread torture”
Some 6,700 have been detained since protests erupted on Sunday evening. At least two people have died and many more have been wounded.
With the EU mulling new sanctions, Belarus promised to free all detainees. In a statement on state television, the President of Council of the Republic of the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus Natallia Kachanava said the president had ordered an investigation into the mass detention of protesters, and that more than 1,000 had been freed. “All the remaining detainees were to be released on Friday morning”, Deputy Interior Minister Aliaksandr Barsukou said, while denying that prisoners had been abused.
As detainees were allowed to leave the notorious Akrescina detention center they revealed their wounds. “They beat people ferociously, with impunity, and they arrest anyone. We were forced to stand in the yard all night. We could hear women being beaten. I don’t understand such cruelty,” one man said as he showed the BBC his bruising. Amnesty International said detainees described being stripped naked, beaten and threatened with rape. “Former detainees told us that detention centers have become torture chambers, where protesters are forced to lie in the dirt while police kick and beat them with truncheons,” said Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Amnesty International said that detention centers have become torture chambers.
Among the testimony to emerge from freed detainees, journalist Nikita Telizhenko published a harrowing account of three days inside the prison for Russian news website Znak.com.
He described people lying on the floor of a detention centre, piled on top of each other, in a pool of blood and excrement. They were not allowed to use the toilet for hours or even change position.
What will the EU do?
EU foreign ministers met on Friday to consider possible sanctions on Belarus because of the crackdown. The bloc has imposed sanctions before but eased the measures several years ago when President Lukashenko released other detainees.
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis has previously stated that sanctions should be imposed “until free and transparent elections are held in Belarus with the participation of international observers”. He said he had the support of Poland’s Mateusz Morawiecki, who said he would put forward a “solidarity with Belarus” plan on Friday in the Polish parliament.
Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission President, has supported further sanctions “against those who violate democratic values or human rights”.
The EU has already dismissed the presidential vote as “neither free nor fair”, an assessment backed by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Lithuania’s president has said Lukashenko is no longer a legitimate leader of Belarus.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makiej said his country was ready for “constructive and objective” talks with other countries.
Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, was declared the winner by the election authorities, but supporters of Tsikhanouskaya insist on her victory. Announcing the final results on Friday, the Central Election Commission said that Lukashenko received 80.1% of the vote, while Tsikhanouskaya – 10.12%, according to the state media.
In her first statement in a few days, the main opposition candidate said that if the votes were correctly counted, she received support from 60% to 70%, not 10% as the election commission stated.