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Belarus crackdown: Women form human chains in 'solidarity' protests

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Belarusian women, one with a poster reading "My brother is not a criminal", rally in solidarity with protesters caught up in the state post-election crackdown, Minsk, Aug. 13.
Belarusian women, one with a poster reading "My brother is not a criminal", rally in solidarity with protesters caught up in the state post-election crackdown, Minsk, Aug. 13.   -   Copyright  AP Photo
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Hundreds of people were back on the streets of Belarus' capital on Thursday in a show of solidarity with protests, after the authorities reported hundreds more arrests amid the repressive response to the outcry over the disputed re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko.

The Belarusian interior ministry said another 700 people had been detained the previous day, when protesters again rallied in Minsk and other cities, decrying the crackdown and the vote they say was rigged to extend the 26-year rule of the country's authoritarian leader.

The latest detentions bring the total number of arrests since Sunday's vote to at least 6,700, with hundreds of injuries.

There are fears for the wellbeing of those held in custody, amid reports of abuses including beatings. Officials confirmed on Wednesday night that a second protester had died amid the unrest since Sunday's vote.

The United Nations has condemned the violence against demonstrators, while EU foreign ministers are to meet on Friday amid calls for international sanctions.

Official election results show Lukashenko won a sixth term with 80% of the vote, with the main opposition challenger receiving just 10%. Amid widespread incredulity, crowds have taken to the streets every night since to demand a recount.

'Solidarity chains'

In several areas of Minsk, large groups of women formed long “lines of solidarity" on Thursday.

More than 100 women carrying flowers and portraits of their loved ones detained during protests gathered in the southwestern part of the city, where police had shot rubber bullets at people chanting and clapping on balconies the night before.

"Belarusians have seen the villainous face of this government. I argued with my husband and voted for Lukashenko. And this is what I got in the end — I can't find my relatives in prisons," said Valentina Chailytko, 49, whose husband and son were detained during protests on Sunday. Chailytko still can't find any information about their whereabouts.

Fears for fate of detainees

Even the official tally of thousands of detainees appears to downplay the scope of the crackdown. Anguished relatives have been besieging prisons across Belarus trying to find their missing relatives.

"Even those who were loyal saw the real face of this government during the past three days," said 63-year-old Galina Vitushko, who stood outside a jail in Minsk, trying to find her son, a 43-year old doctor. She said that she desperately needs to give him insulin since he has diabetes.

"How can you treat your own people like that?” she asked, breaking into tears. "The real winners don’t behave like that."

"Conditions for those stuck in Belarus' detention centres are reportedly appalling," Euronews correspondent Anelise Borges reported from Minsk. "Human rights organisations are racing to keep track of violations."

Second protester dies

A second protester died after violent demonstrations that were sparked by Sunday's disputed election result in Belarus, the country's Investigative Committee said in a statement on Wednesday night.

The 25-year-old man died in a hospital in Gomel, in the south-east, after being arrested on Sunday during an "unauthorised demonstration", it added.

The statement did not specify the date of the protester's death but said his health "suddenly deteriorated" while he was in detention.

The clashes have also left one person dead in Minsk and police said they opened fire with live ammunition in Brest, in the south-west near the border with Poland, leaving one injured.

Police brutality

In recent nights, authorities have responded with a level of brutality remarkable even during Lukashenko’s rule. Police have dispersed protesters with tear gas, stun grenades, water cannons and rubber bullets and severely beat them with truncheons.

Black-uniformed officers chased protesters into residential buildings and deliberately targeted journalists, beating many and breaking their cameras.

In several parts of Minsk on Wednesday night, groups of hundreds of people formed human chains. An AFP journalist witnessed one such chain in the north-east of the capital being broken up, with demonstrators beaten by police.

Elsewhere, motorists blared horns in support and, in some areas, slowed to a crawl to block police vehicles. On one avenue, people stood on balconies, clapping in an expression of support. Riot police fired rubber bullets at them.

Similar protests were held in at least five other cities, according to the Viasna human rights group.

Earlier in the day, groups of hundreds of women formed human chains in several districts of Minsk, chanting “Shame!” and calling for an end to the crackdown on the demonstrations. Hesitant to use force against all-women rallies, police dispersed them without violence.

Journalists targeted

Journalists, in particular, have been targeted. Boris Goretsky, vice president of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, said more than 20 reporters are currently in custody, waiting to see a judge, and several more have already been sentenced to jail terms ranging from 10 to 15 days.

“A deliberate hunt for journalists with independent Belarusian and foreign media has begun,” said Goretsky.

Reporters from several Belarusian and international outlets were beaten up Tuesday in Minsk. Officers seized memory cards from a group of photographers, including one for the AP.

On Wednesday, Vital Tsyhankou, a journalist for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was severely beaten by police and detained along with two reporters from an independent Belarusian TV station after covering a protest against police violence.

The Viasna rights group said many injured protesters were afraid to seek medical help, fearing prosecution for participating in the rallies.

Eduard Kukhterin, a 56-year-old publisher, was injured by rubber bullets overnight but decided not to go to a hospital. “Medical workers report such injuries to the law enforcement,” Kukhterin told the AP.

Lukashenko blames jobless

President Alexander Lukashenko has blamed criminals and unemployment for the mass protests that have swept the country, urging those taking part to "get a job".

"The core of these so-called protesters are people with a criminal past and (those who are) currently unemployed," Lukashenko said at a government meeting on Wednesday. "Those who don't have a job, walk in the streets and avenues. That's why I'm kindly urging everyone who is unemployed to get a job."

The 65-year-old has led the former Soviet state of 9.5 million people since 1994, relentlessly stifling dissent and winning the nickname “Europe’s last dictator” in the West.

Belarus' leading opposition candidate in the election said on Tuesday she had fled her country for Lithuania for her own wellbeing and for that of her children in the wake of the elections.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said she made the decision "absolutely independently" to leave adding the current situation in Belarus was "not worth any life," referencing the violent protests.

In a video released on Tuesday, she urged her supporters to respect the law and to avoid clashes with police -- but her campaign aides said she made the unexpected moves under duress.

The 37-year-old former teacher and political novice managed to unite fractured opposition groups and draw tens of thousands to her campaign rallies after two top potential challengers were barred from the race. She entered the race to replace her husband, an opposition blogger who aspired to run but has been in jail since his arrest in May.

Maria Kolesnikova, a top figure in Tsikhanouskaya's campaign, urged the government on Wednesday to “stop waging a war against its own people and begin a dialogue.”

Calls for international sanctions

On Wednesday the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet urged Belarusian authorities to release immediately all those unlawfully detained and investigate rights abuses.

European Union foreign ministers scheduled a meeting on Friday to discuss the crackdown.

The EU's foreign policy chief has deplored "disproportionate and unacceptable" state violence, raising the possibility of imposing sanctions on those responsible.

Josep Borrell called the meeting a day after saying that the 27-nation bloc could impose sanctions against "those responsible for the observed violence, unjustified arrests, and falsification of election results.”

In 2016, the European Union lifted most of the sanctions it slapped on Belarus after Lukashenko freed political prisoners and allowed protests.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Thursday that the conditions for easing those sanctions had been "removed" by the election aftermath, which had "destroyed" hopes for Belarus.

Speaking during a trip to the Czech Republic on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Belarusian vote was neither free nor fair. “We want the people of Belarus to have the freedoms that they’re demanding," he said.

Condemnation and statements are not enough, said Franak Viacorka, a journalist from Minsk and Vice-President of DigiComNet (Digital Communication Network).

"Lukashenko understands only sanctions... Not just economic, they should be very personalised, very targeted, and they should touch not just Lukashenka himself but all the people who are giving orders to shoot people and kill people right now," he told Euronews.

"If these people will flee and will support the protesters, the democratic leaders, then the system, the regime will collapse, and we will be able to see Belarus free."

The Russian Foreign Ministry said on Thursday that Russia saw "clear efforts of foreign interference" in the Belarus protests.

"We see clear efforts of foreign interference with affairs of the sovereign state in order to split the society and to destabilise the situation. We have seen the use of such methods in other countries," said ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.

Watch the interview with Franak Viacorka in the video player above.