Minsk, 20 September 2020 (dpa/MIA) – Uniformed men in balaclavas were seen detaining large numbers of peaceful demonstrators in the Belarusian capital Minsk on Sunday and bundling them into prison transporters.
Hundreds of police and army were out in force to prevent a fresh mass protest against President Alexander Lukashenko called by activists for the sixth Sunday in a row.
Soldiers in combat uniforms armed with assault rifles were seen waiting at the Palace of the Republic and in side streets as people streamed into the city centre on foot.
Authorities had closed metro stations and mobile internet services were down in an attempt to stop the demonstrators. Last weekend an estimated 150,000 joined protests despite similar restrictions.
A heavy police presence was also seen guarding Lukashenko’s presidential palace, where the 66-year-old has twice appeared armed with a Kalashnikov to prevent the building being stormed.
Anti-government protesters have remained largely peaceful throughout an increasingly violent crackdown by security forces.
In a video clip ahead of the planned rally, opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya called on her fellow Belarusians to continue fighting for a country in which it is worth living in the so-called “March of Justice.”
“Every week you show yourself and the world that the Belarusian people are a force,” the 38-year-old said from exile in the European Union.
Demonstrations were also seen in other cities, including Grodno, Gomel, Vitebsk and Zhodino.
The protests are organized by a group called Nexta Live, communicating to its 2 million subscribers through Telegram.
There, the group also published the names and details of 1,000 members of the security forces involved in the brutal suppression of protests, with the help of a group of hackers called Cyber-Partisans.
Nexta Live said they had warned the security forces ahead of the move not to carry out the government’s “criminal orders.”
The security forces are clad in balaclavas and uniforms without identity badges, in violation of Belarusian and international rules, human rights activists said.
The Belarusian opposition said that members of the security forces responsible for the deaths, injuries and arrests of protestors would be found.
The Interior Ministry said those responsible for the data leak would be found and punished.
On Saturday, women had called for Lukashenko’s resignation in a protest march. There were more than 400 detentions, the Interior Ministry said on Sunday, with 385 protestors released again.
The security forces have become increasingly brutal in recent weeks after Lukashenko, often referred to as Europe’s last dictator, called for more rigorous action in the event of unauthorized protests.
There have been daily protests in Belarus since the presidential election on August 9.
Lukashenko had been officially declared the election winner with 80.1 per cent of the vote after 26 years in office. The opposition, however, says the vote was rigged and considers Tikhanovskaya to be the real winner.