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VIDEO: Belarus shaken by third night of postelection protests

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

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

Belarus witnessed a third night of postelection protests on August 11 after top presidential challenger Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya left for Lithuania amid a widening government crackdown on the opposition.

Riot police fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and stun grenades to disperse protesters in the capital, Minsk, where livestreamed video and social media showed people being detained by police at multiple locations.

RFE/RL’s Belarus Service reported authorities were enforcing a de facto curfew, detaining people walking on the streets, stopping cars and detaining some drivers, and limiting public transportation. Police wielding shields and batons also attacked people, journalists, and cars honking horns.

Security forces sought to prevent people gathering in central squares and near administrative buildings. Several protesters were detained at the Pushkin subway station, which is expected to become a center of protest as people leave flowers and white ribbons to honor a man who died there on August 10.

Demonstrations and clashes with police were also reported in several towns across the Eastern European country.

The protests appeared to be smaller than on previous nights when tens of thousands of people braved a harsh crackdown to challenge the results of what the opposition says was a rigged August 9 election extending President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s 26-year rule.

Observers said the lower turnout may reflect the decentralized nature of the protests, part of a strategy of action at multiple locations in the capital to spread out security forces. Internet service has also been down, depriving protesters of information about where to congregate.

The harsh crackdown – with more than 5,000 people detained, some 200 hospitalized, and one dead since the election – came after the Central Election Commission gave Lukashenka a landslide victory with more than 80 percent of the vote while the official tally for his main rival, Tsikhanouskaya, was less than 10 percent.

The latest demonstrations took place after Tsikhanouskaya surfaced in Lithuania on August 11 following reports that a day earlier she had visited Belarus’s Central Election Commission (CEC) headquarters to file a complaint about the official outcome of the vote.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius told RFE/RL that his country took in Tsikhanouskaya to ensure her safety “because there was an element of danger.”

“We can only judge that she didn’t have much choice: either leave the country or the other consequences would not be good,” Linkevicius said.

Appearing visually shaken in a video released on August 11 and uploaded on her husband’s — Syarhey Tskihanouski — YouTube channel, Tsikhanouskaya was shown reading a prepared statement in which she said she’d made the decision to leave Belarus on her own.

The Lithuanian foreign minister told RFE/RL that Tsikhanouskaya had not recorded any videos in Lithuania, suggesting she was under pressure from the authorities in Belarus when she made the remarks.

“Well, you understand that when a person makes a decision under pressure, all the words said [by her] cannot be accepted word-for-word,” Linkevicius said.

“I made a very difficult decision,” Tsikhanouskaya said in the video shared by her husband after she’d safely arrived in Lithuania. “That decision I made by myself. Neither friends, relatives, the campaign team, nor Syarhey could affect it in any way. I know that many will understand me, many will judge me, and many will hate me. But, you know, God forbid, [you have to] face the dilemma I had to face.”

An ally of Tsikhanouskaya, Maryya Kalesnikava, said on August 11 that the video statement was made under duress while Tsikhanouskaya was being held without a lawyer for three hours by “high-ranking law enforcement” officers at the election commission headquarters in Minsk after she tried to register a formal complaint about the official election results.

“Svyatlana was there without contact with us,” Kalesnikava said. “The recent video is the result of these three hours.”

A second video clip — released on August 11 on the pro-government Belarusian Telegram channel Zhyoltye Slivy — showed Tsikhanouskaya wearing the same clothing and sitting on a green couch that appeared strikingly similar to furniture in the office of the CEC chief.

In that video clip, Tsikhanouskaya unenthusiastically read a statement from a piece of paper without looking into the video camera — calling on all Belarusians to exercise “good judgment,” not to join public protests, and to show “respect for the law.”

“I do not want blood and violence,” Tsikhanouskaya said in the 37-second video clip. “I ask you not to stand against police. Do not go out to the squares so that you do not put your lives in danger. Take care of yourselves and your loved ones.”

Meanwhile, Tsikhanouskaya’s spokesperson, Volha Kavalkova, said on August 11 that Belarusian authorities had taken Tsikhanuskaya out of the country.

“Svyatlana had no choice,” Kavalkova said. “It is important that she is free and alive. She left along with her campaign chief Maryya Maroz. But part of Svyatlana’s team continues to be held hostage here” in Belarus.

Kavalkova said Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign team now has two main goals — to defend the choice of the Belarusian people and to stop violence and bloodshed.

Tsikhanouskaya entered the race after her husband, a popular vlogger and potential opposition candidate, was jailed.

The international community continues to weigh in on the election, with the European Union declaring on August 11 that the vote was “neither free nor fair” and threatening to impose sanctions against those responsible for the violence against peaceful protesters and the falsification of election results.

If the EU were to impose sanctions on Belarus over its human rights record, it would unravel a rapprochement with Brussels in the wake of Brussels lifting sanctions on Minsk in 2016.

The United States has similarly expressed concern over the election results and use of force against protesters.