Tens of thousands march to support Belarus political prisoners

Tens of thousands march to support Belarus political prisoners

Protesters tried to stop police from using water cannon during the rally
Protesters tried to stop police from using water cannon during the rally

MINSK - Belarusian police on Sunday used water cannon to disperse protesters in the capital Minsk as tens of thousands marched to demand the release of political prisoners.

Demonstrators took to the streets despite warnings they could face prison and dedicated their latest march -- which came after Brussels and Washington introduced sanctions against some Belarusian officials -- to the plight of dozens of political prisoners.

Ahead of the march, the government sought to complicate media coverage of opposition rallies against strongman Alexander Lukashenko's regime, withdrawing the accreditation of all foreign journalists.

On Sunday, internet and cell phone services were disrupted.

But pictures and videos posted on social media showed huge crowds gathering in Minsk and protesters marching towards a detention centre, with some carrying portraits of victims of police abuse.

Other protesters waved red-and-wite opposition flags and beat drums.

"Set them free!" demonstrators chanted after they reached the notorious jail on Okrestin Street which some have dubbed a "torture chamber".

The opposition movement calling for an end to strongman Lukashenko's rule has kept up a series of large-scale demonstrations since his controversial election win on August 9, with 100,000 people or more taking to the streets every Sunday.

Since the start of the post-election crackdown in which several people have died, harrowing accounts have emerged of abuse in the Minsk jail. Many said they had been tortured, beaten and humiliated there.

After the march had begun in the centre of the capital, police confirmed they had moved in on the protest, which like others was considered an illegal gathering.

Interior ministry spokeswoman Olga Chemodanova told AFP that water cannon had been used in Minsk and that there had been detentions, but provided no further details.

- 'Terrible screams' -

Rights group Viasna said more than 100 demonstrators were detained in Minsk and elsewhere.

Protester Natalia Samotyia said she saw police beat up protesters.

"I stood on a bridge and heard people's terrible screams," she told AFP.

Another protester, Yakov Baranovsky, said police blasted him and another demonstrators with water cannon, forcing them to seek shelter.

"Everything has been done to make people disperse," the 51-year-old engineer said.

Belarusians this week received official text messages saying they could face criminal responsibility for taking part in "unsanctioned" rallies.

"Do not make a mistake!" the interior ministry said.

Ahead of the rally, the Nexta Live opposition Telegram channel, which has coordinated protesters and has more than two million subscribers, urged Belarusians to march towards the Minsk jail in support of political prisoners.

"These are people who have suffered for their convictions -- and are still suffering," Lukashenko's election rival Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said ahead of the protest. "Our task is to set them free."

According to Viasna, there are now 77 "political prisoners" in Belarus including Tikhanovskaya's husband and opposition blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, who was not allowed to run for president, and senior opposition figure Maria Kolesnikova, who ripped up her passport to prevent authorities from deporting her.

Also on the list is Belarusian-US strategist Vitali Shkliarov, who worked on US Senator Bernie Sanders's presidential campaign and advised the Russian opposition.

- Sanctions, counter-sanctions -

Russia has backed its longstanding ally Lukashenko, offering financial backing and promising military support if events turn against him.

On Friday, the United States and the European Union hit Belarus with long-awaited sanctions for rigging the vote and orchestrating the crackdown on protesters, targeting key officials -- but not Lukashenko himself.

Minsk swiftly announced tit-for-tat "counter sanctions" against the EU, although it was not clear what form these would take or what or who they would target.

Tikhanovskaya ran in place of her jailed husband and claimed victory over Lukashenko.

After taking shelter in EU member Lithuania, the 38-year-old political novice has been engaged in a diplomatic push to drum up support for the embattled Belarusian opposition.

She has met French President Emmanuel Macron and will travel to Germany for a meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday.

Lukashenko, who has ruled ex-Soviet Belarus for 26 years, has accused Western countries and NATO of supporting protesters and trying to destabilise the country of 9.5 million.

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