Hundreds of protesters, including seven opposition candidates, were arrested in Belarus after police cracked down on a mass rally protesting suspected fraud in the landslide re-election of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko on December 19. Our Observer was among the protesters when the crackdown occurred.
Lukashenko, memorably described as "Europe's last dictator" by the former Bush administration, was declared winner of Sunday's poll with 79.6% of the vote by the central election commission. He has ruled over the former Soviet republic for the past 16 years with an iron fist.
When the president was asked if he expected opposition protests to follow should he be elected to a fourth term, he had an icily menacing answer ready. "What is awaiting supporters of the protest -- read our laws," he said, as he cast his ballot. "Do not worry -- there will not be anyone on the [Independence] square tonight."
Nevertheless, tens of thousands of outraged voters braved arrest to gather in central Minsk as the results became official. Thousands of riot police were sent to encircle the protest, beating demonstrators with truncheons and packing hundreds into police vans. Dozens were injured, and an unknown number of people are still in custody. The international community has condemned the violence.
On Monday, Lukashenko slammed the mass protests as "banditry" carried out by groups of "vandals", saying he won the election "in a worthy fashion".
Riot police form battalions and close in on protesters on Independence Square, menacingly banging their batons on their shields. Video posted on YouTube by WhiteTiger032.
Police intervene after protesters begin smashing windows at a government building. Video posted on YouTube by mefimus.
"We thought the recent signs of liberalisation were real, but we were wrong."
Olga Stuzhinskaya is the director of the Office for a Democratic Belarus, a Brussels-based NGO run by expatriate citizens of Belarus. She participated in the demonstrations on Sunday.
It is obvious that the outcome of the vote has been forged. The turnout was clearly much lower than was officially stated [over 90%, according to the central election commission]. Our electoral observers were present at many polling stations that were virtually empty. The official exit poll results are not reliable. All of the organisations that conducted the polls are affiliated with the Belarus government. According to independent surveys, those who voted for Lukashenko are the minority.
To protest this obvious fraud we gathered on Oktyabrskaya Square in Minsk. At first there were not many people there, maybe two hundred, and it looked as though there would be fewer people in the street than after the 2006 elections [at the time, mass anti-Lukashenko demonstrations were forcefully broken up and opposition leaders sentenced to jail].
But gradually we were joined by many, many more people. We tried to estimate how many by looking at the crowd from above, and concluded that there were between 20,000 and 30,000 people. Nezavisimosti (Independence) Square, our final destination, was absolutely packed.
"Dozens of protesters poured into the hospital, covered in blood"
I didn't see clearly when or why the crackdown started, because I was quite far from the government building [which houses the government, the central election commission and the parliament. Protesters threw rocks and trash bins to smash the building's windows until hundreds of riot police reinforcements arrived and violently dispersed the crowd]. We ran away and managed to hide in the Minsk Hotel [a luxury hotel in the city centre] together with some journalists and OSCE [Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe] observers. We came across many frightened and wounded people trying to run away. Several of them also hid in the hotel, and an OSCE observer and I brought one injured person to the hospital. In the emergency room we met one of the presidential candidates, Vitaly Rymashevsky. His head was bandaged and he appeared to have been beaten. We heard another injured opposition leader, Vladimir Nekliayev, was also there, but we didn't see him because he was in [another] room. Dozens of protesters kept pouring in, many covered in blood.
Later, we learned that police came to arrest Nekliayev at the hospital. He was taken away and no one knows where he is. Seven of the nine opposition candidates have been arrested. There is another demonstration scheduled today, but I doubt many people will go - they are much too afraid. We thought that the small recent signs of liberalisation [Lukashenko, who has sought closer ties with the European Union, relaxed controls on the opposition during the campaign in an apparent bid to impress international observers] were at least partly real, but we were wrong."
Post written with freelance journalist Ostap Karmodi.