Tens of thousands of opposition supporters gathered in central Minsk on 19 December protesting fraud in Belarusian elections, and calling for authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko to step down after his re-election victory that day. The demonstration was rapidly smothered by police, with hundreds of activists, journalists and opposition candidates bludgeoned with truncheons and arrested, report IFEX members and the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ).
According to news reports, Lukashenko announced that 639 protesters have been detained. Seven presidential candidates were arrested, including the lead challenger, 63-year-old Vladmir Neklyayev, former President of the Belarusian PEN Centre, report Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International (WiPC) and Human Rights Watch. Neklyayev was viciously beaten by security services, hospitalised with serious head injuries and then abducted. The Belarusian PEN Centre has issued an appeal for him to receive all necessary medical attention and to be freed immediately.
BAJ, an affiliate of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), condemned the police brutality against Belarusian and foreign journalists and has recorded about 25 journalists detained and assaulted, and 22 more injured by riot police, as well as the distorted state media coverage of the demonstration.
Police did not distinguish between journalists and protesters in their assault, report BAJ and CPJ. A "New York Times" photographer was struck when he tried to show his press card. Belarusian journalists were told to stop working and lie face down in the snow while covering the arrest of Neklyayev and his supporters. Prominent Belarusian journalist Irina Khalip, a local correspondent for the Moscow-based independent newspaper "Novaya Gazeta", was beaten and driven away by riot police. Several journalists were taken away to unknown locations.
The crackdown on the opposition continued on 20 December, reports BAJ. Authorities searched Neklyayev's campaign headquarters and detained several activists and BAJ members who supported his campaign. Initially, the presence of foreign journalists at the office had stalled the raid.
In a separate raid the same day, police broke into the office of the pro-opposition news website charter97.org and detained its editor, Natallia Radzina, and some of her colleagues. Radzina was also severely beaten by police at the rally. The entire staff of Charter97 has now been detained, reports Index on Censorship.
About 150 of those detained were quickly tried in administrative courts on 20 December, and each sentenced to 10 to 15 days of detention, says Human Rights Watch. One activist who was released, and is now in hiding, told Index that detainees were denied water, food and sleep.
Meanwhile, independent and opposition websites were rendered inaccessible, mobile networks were crippled and social networking sites were blocked, report IFEX members. "Attacks on Internet and mobile network sites suggest an effort to conceal fraud at the polls," said Freedom House. "Democratic forces around the world should be standing with those thousands of brave people in October Square protesting Lukashenko's effort to stay in power no matter what."
Often referred to as Europe's last dictatorship, Lukashenko's regime has destroyed the opposition and silenced critical journalists and activists in recent years. Index was told of 31 detentions prior to the demonstrations. Index's Mike Harris explains that "foreign ministers of Germany and Poland proposed a potential US$3.5 billion EU aid package, in return for 'free and fair' elections" and that Lukashenko had "little to lose" with an opposition that had already been systematically weakened by his police state.
Plus, Harris points out, there were major electoral irregularities, with groups loyal to the President voting in more than one district.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the European Union criticised the conduct of the election, including the lack of transparency during the vote count.