Belarus ramps up crackdown on protests, detains over 700
Kiev, Ukraine (AP) - Authorities in Belarus said Monday they arrested 713 people during mass protests the day before against the re-election of the country's authoritarian leader in a controversial election - the toughest crackdown on protesters in weeks.
The Interior Ministry reported that of those detained on Sunday, 570 were still in custody pending a trial. In a separate statement, the ministry threatened the use of firearms against the demonstrators "if necessary" and said the rallies "have become organized and extremely radical".
Despite the arrests, protests in Belarus continued on Monday. Elderly people took to the streets in several Belarusian cities demanding Lukashenko's resignation. More than 2,000 people marched through Minsk and sang “Go away!” And signs reading “Grandmothers (stand) with the people” and “Our souls are marked by terror”. Several people were arrested.
The protests calling for the resignation of President Alexander Lukashenko spanned several cities on Sunday. The largest crowd gathered in the capital Minsk. The Viasna Human Rights Center estimated that around 100,000 people attended the rally in Minsk. Police quickly dispersed the protest with water cannons, stun grenades and batons and prevented groups of people in different parts of the city from merging into one large gathering.
Dozens of people were injured when human rights activists said this was the toughest Sunday demonstration spread since August.
Mass protests have rocked Belarus since August 9th, when the results of the presidential election gave Lukashenko 80% of the vote and his main opponent Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya only 10%. Tsikhanouskaya and her supporters refused to acknowledge the results of the vote, saying it was full of fraud, and some election officials have confirmed this claim.
Both the European Union and the United States have declared that the presidential elections were neither free nor fair.
In the first days of the protests, the Belarusian authorities cracked down on demonstrators. The police arrested thousands and scored numerous hits.
The violent reaction to the rallies sparked international outrage. The EU and US punished dozens of Belarusian officials with sanctions for their role in alleged election rigging and crackdown on protesters, but did not target Lukashenko, who has ruled the country with an iron fist for 26 years.
The government has since scaled back violence but maintained pressure, arresting hundreds of protesters and prosecuting top activists. Prominent members of the opposition Coordinating Council, which was formed to promote a change in power, have been arrested or forced to leave the country.
Over 40 journalists were arrested over the weekend, 25 of them in Minsk, said the Belarusian Association of Journalists. 15 Belarusian journalists in Minsk face up to 15 days' imprisonment for disregarding police officers. Many had confiscated their equipment.
"The authorities are trying to prevent coverage of the protests by beating and arresting journalists, revoking their accreditation and creating dire working conditions," Andrei Bastunets, head of the journalists' association, told The Associated Press.
Earlier this month, Belarusian authorities revoked the accreditation of all journalists working for foreign news agencies, saying they would have to apply for new IDs that some foreign news agencies received last week. In September, the authorities also exposed the media IDs of the most popular Belarusian independent news site, which covered the protests in detail.
Tsikhanouskaya, currently in exile in Lithuania after leaving Belarus under pressure from the authorities, called on the EU to increase sanctions against Lukashenko and his allies.
“Yesterday we saw the violence escalating from the authorities. Once again hundreds of people are arrested, beaten, injured and crippled. Despite the peaceful nature of the protests, the repression is intensifying, ”Tsikhanouskaya told the AP on Monday.
Lukashenko and his staff must be included on the sanctions list along with law enforcement officers who take part in raids on demonstrators, she added.
"I urge our European partners to act quickly and decisively," said Tsikhanouskaya.
EU officials said Monday they had seen no improvement in Belarus and were ready to impose further sanctions on top Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko.
The head of foreign affairs of the EU, Josep Borrell, said at a meeting of the foreign ministers of the bloc that “Lukashenko's side lacks the will to start negotiations, to contact anything that could bring about a democratic, peaceful solution to the situation in Belarus. ”
Ministers warned that "the EU is ready to take further restrictive measures, including against companies and high-ranking officials, including A. Lukashenko."
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, meanwhile, was "concerned about some of the acts of violence that we have seen" and "has said on several occasions that it is very important that there is an inclusive democratic dialogue involving all parties in Belarus Getting out of this crisis “, Said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric.
"It is imperative that people have the right to demonstrate freely, that security services must show restraint to ensure that people can exercise the right to demonstrate freely," he said.
Dujarric has been saying this since the protests began. The United States team on the ground in Belarus "urged the authorities to release all those detained for exercising their human rights and to stop torture and other ill-treatment of detainees."
Follow all AP stories about developments in Belarus at https://apnews.com/Belarus
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