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Belarus protests continue as authorities release some jailed in crackdown

Belarus-Minsk-Opposition Protests (Alex Zelenko/WikiCommons)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Tens of thousands of Belarusians engaged in a fifth day of peaceful protests on August 13 against President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s disputed reelection and a harsh crackdown that has drawn international outrage.

In an apparent attempt to calm tensions, authorities late in the evening released more than 1,000 people from detention and the interior minister issued a rare apology for the use of excessive force against some bystanders.

“I take responsibility and apologize for injuries of random people at the protests who got it in the neck,” Interior Minister Yury Karayev said, adding that some protesters had engaged in violence.

Another Lukashenka ally, the head of a national state council, Natalya Kochanova, said the president had ordered an urgent review of detentions.

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“We don’t fight, we don’t need war,” she said. “By this evening more than a thousand people have been freed under an obligation of not taking part in unsanctioned events.”

Riot police have used batons to ruthlessly and openly beat people on the streets, as well as fired live ammunition at some protesters, leaving hundreds injured and at least two dead.

Some 6,000 people remain in detention, with numerous unconfirmed reports emerging that detainees have been beaten and abused while in police custody.

Meanwhile, international pressure on the Belarusian government to end the violence and defuse the crisis is mounting. A group of United Nations human rights experts on August 13 issued a statement condemning the actions of police in Belarus.

“We are outraged by the police violence towards peaceful protesters and journalists,” the statement said. “The security forces do not seem to seek dialogue with the protesters or allow them to exercise their right to freedom of peaceful assembly.”

The UN statement urged the international community “to strengthen pressure on the government of Belarus to stop violently attacking its own citizens who are exercising their fundamental rights.”

Ahead of an EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on August 14 to discuss Belarus, the leaders of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland issued a joint statement offering to act as mediators “for the sake of a peace settlement of the crisis in Belarus.”

The statement called for the creation of a forum that could produce “a national dialogue” in the wake of the disputed August 9 election.

Across Belarus, tens of thousands joined protests of various stripes, including workers from some state-run industries staging strikes.

Early on August 13, groups of women in Minsk formed a “chain of solidarity” — standing next to each other and raising their hands with victory signs and flowers.

Drivers passing those engaged in the nonviolent protest action honked car horns in support.

Elsewhere, medical workers at Minsk’s Central Hospital No. 1 held flowers to express solidarity with protesters — an act they also had carried out the previous day.

Dozens of musicians from the Belarusian State Philharmonic Society also stood outside a concert hall in Minsk singing “O Mighty God!” while holding up letters to spell out “My voice was stolen.”

Belarusian tennis star Vera Lapko wrote on Instagram on August 12 that she has been unable to concentrate on preparations for the U.S. Open because of the violent crackdown by authorities in her country.

Belarusian gymnast Hanna Hlazkova, an Olympic medalist, condemned the violent dispersal of protesters in a statement on Facebook.

More than 700 CEOs and investors of IT companies in Belarus signed a joint letter to demand an end to the crackdown and for a new “open and fair” presidential election.

The Belarusian Association of Journalists said that 23 journalists remain in police custody. In all, the association reported, 68 journalists were detained following the election.

Russian conductor and violinist Vladimir Spivakov says he was protesting the brutal police crackdown by returning a Belarusian award he had received from Lukashenka several years ago for his contribution to the arts — the Order of Francysk Skaryna.

Since August 11, several well-known news anchors and reporters for Belarusian state television have announced they are quitting their jobs in solidarity with the protesters.

They include anchors Volha Bahatyrevich, Uladzimer Burko, Vera Karetnikava, Yauhen Perlin, Syarhey Kazlovich, Tatsyana Barodkina, and Andrey Makayonak.

The move has been welcomed by retired veteran Belarusian television anchor Zinaida Bandarenka, who had quit her state TV job in the early 2000s to protest Lukashenka’s authoritarian rule.

“You carried out a civil action. Today, Belarusians are different. People understand you and they support you,” Bandarenka said. “It is impossible to serve this government anymore. What is happening now is a move by Belarus, by our society, which is tired and can no longer stand lies and arrogance.”

In a significant development, workers at some state-run industrial facilities joined protests and called for a nationwide general strike in protest against the Central Election Commission’s official election tally.

Some police and members of Belarus’s OMON security force said on social media that they have thrown away or burned their uniforms to show their shame and disgust about the violent dispersal of peaceful demonstrations.

The opposition NEXTA Life Telegram channel shared about a dozen such statements by angry police officers.

Meanwhile, a police officer in the northern city of Navapolatsak who’d announced his resignation on August 11 and denounced police violence has appeared in court to face charges of organizing an unsanctioned protest.

The court in Navapolatsak acquitted police Captain Yahor Emyalyanau on August 13.

Meduza reports that Homel police officer Ivan Kolas — who went missing after calling on other police to refrain from beating unarmed protesters — has fled Belarus.

More than 1,000 scientists and researchers signed an open letter calling for an end to the violence against protesters and the release of all demonstrators and “political detainees.” The letter was posted on the Onliner.by news website.

Other media reports from Belarus on August 13 said that inmates at Correctional Colony No. 2 in the eastern city of Babruysk started a riot overnight to protest the official vote count and show solidarity with demonstrators across the country.

Journalists positioned hundreds of meters from the prison reported that they could hear inmates inside chanting “Go away!” along with the sound of guard dogs barking and banging metal.

There was no official statement from prison officials about what happened inside the facility.

But local residents said Interior Ministry troops were brought into the penitentiary on August 13.

Meanwhile, some 100 protesters were released from Minsk’s central detention center overnight.

The Interior Ministry said on August 13 that “disorder across the country had lost intensity, but the level of aggression towards law enforcement remains high.”

The ministry said a total of 103 police officers have been injured, including 28 who’ve been hospitalized, since the protests began.