Hundreds of people have been arrested after taking to the streets in cities across Belarus as part of protests timed to coincide with celebrations marking the country’s independence, authorities in the country say.
On Thursday evening, a number of activists were detained in the capital, Minsk, officials reported. In a statement, the country’s Ministry of Internal Affairs said that “minor protest activity was observed on Independence Avenue and in some residential areas of the capital.” Across the country, more than 200 people were reportedly picked up by police.
However, authorities claimed that “large scale protests organized by destructive Telegram channels did not take place.” Instead, the ministry said, there were only “isolated instances of violations of the law on mass events in the country.” Gatherings are currently banned under pandemic prevention laws.
The government has blamed online messaging services for encouraging and organizing mass action against the country’s embattled long-time leader Lukashenko. “We will look into every situation,” the ministry said. “Calls on the Internet to participate in protests should not become a guide to action.”
Vesna, a human rights group that has received Western funding to provide assistance to detainees, confirmed that more than 100 people had been arrested, the vast majority of these in the capital. Victory Day, commemorating the end of WWII, is traditionally celebrated on the same day.
The country has been rocked by large-scale protests since Lukashenko declared victory in the country’s presidential election last summer. The opposition, and many international observers, insist the polls was rigged. Protests have become a regular feature of life in the country since then, although the size of the crowds calling for the veteran leader’s resignation has reduced in recent months.
Lukashenko has said that he will step back from the presidency and call an “open” election, but only if unrest dies down. “My main condition for leaving power is peace and order in the country and no protests,” the embattled leader said, in a speech to the country’s legislative assembly last week. He had previously insisted that it would be a mistake for him to hand over power before a new constitution is in place. He has since claimed that the draft document would be “ready within a year.”
Opposition figurehead Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who claims she was the real victor of last year’s election, has said she believes that the end is in sight for the incumbent president. “We hope for a strong alliance with the new US administration and the EU. Pressure will increase day by day and, at some point, it will become too much for Lukashenko, and he will leave,” she said. “The Lukashenko regime will fall this year. I think he will be gone in the spring.”
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