Belarus set for new mass protest against Lukashenko amid crackdown

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A woman holds pictures of protesters allegedly beaten by police in front of a riot police officer in Minsk, Belarus. Photo: 5 September 2020

image copyrightReuters

image captionThousands of women took part in a demonstration in Minsk on Saturday

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Large protests are expected to be held again in Belarus calling for long-time President Alexander Lukashenko to step down as a crackdown intensifies.

On Saturday, security agents in the capital Minsk detained dozens of people, mostly students, in the fourth weekend of protests.

Opponents say Mr Lukashenko rigged the presidential election of 9 August.

Meanwhile, top opposition activist Olga Kovalkova said she had taken refuge in Poland amid jail threats.

Mr Lukashenko, in power since 1994, has accused Western nations of interfering.

Protesters, human rights activists and observers say riot police are brutally suppressing peaceful marches.

What is happening on Sunday?

It has become the key day for street demonstrations since the rallies began, the BBC’s Jonah Fisher in Minsk reports.

Riot police have intensified their efforts to intimidate and block the flow of people heading into the centre of city, while detaining those taking part in the demonstrations, our correspondent says.

He adds that in the past few days the security forces – dressed all in black with balaclavas over their faces – have targeted university students as they returned from their holidays, dragging some from the streets and university buildings into unmarked minivans.

Pictures on social media on Sunday showed armoured personnel carriers and water cannon vehicles driving into the centre of Minsk, some heading for Independence Square, which has been cordoned off.

media captionA 73-year-old great-grandmother has turned into an unlikely hero for demonstrators in Belarus

What happened to Olga Kovalkova?

She said on Saturday she had left for Poland as she would have faced a long jail term had she not agreed to leave Belarus.

Ms Kovalkova said that security forces had driven her to a border post where she was able to board a bus to Poland after the driver recognised her.

Representative of the Co-ordination Council for members of the Belarusian opposition Olga Kovalkova holds flowers as she attends an opposition demonstration to protest against presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus August 22, 2020.

image copyrightReuters

image captionOpposition activist Olga Kovalkova (seen here on 22 August) has now left Belarus

A spokesman for Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki said his country would offer support to victims of repression in Belarus.

Ms Tikhanovskaya, 37, represented the chief opposition to Mr Lukashenko in the election, entering the presidential race after her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, and another candidate were jailed.

She said the opposition was demanding an end to the police violence, the immediate release of all political prisoners, and a free and fair election.

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Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. File photo

image copyrightEPA

image captionMs Tikhanovskaya has been forced to leave Belarus

What has been the political response on Belarus?

Last month, EU leaders agreed to impose sanctions – including asset freezes – on as yet unnamed Belarusian officials involved in alleged election-rigging, brutality and imprisonment of protesters. The exact sanctions are still being worked out.

The UN special rapporteur on Belarus, Anais Marin, said Mr Lukashenko’s re-election as president was “completely manipulated” and “people’s votes were stolen”.

She accused the Belarus police of torture, citing as one example a 16-year-old who was “so badly beaten up he was left in a coma”.

“The authorities must release all those arbitrarily arrested,” she said. “The government is waging an insane war against its own people.”

media captionLukashenko leaves helicopter wearing a flak jacket and carrying an assault rifle

What is Mr Lukashenko’s stance?

Mr Lukashenko has denied any allegations of vote-rigging. He has blamed some EU nations, in particular Poland and Lithuania, of trying to force regime change.

The 66-year-old, whose key backer is Russia, has promised to defend Belarus.

On Thursday, he indicated he was open to moving closer to Russia, saying the protests had “prompted us to make relevant conclusions”.

On at least two occasions he has been photographed near his residence in Minsk carrying a gun and being surrounded by his heavily armed security personnel.

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