Authorities have freed at least 2,000 people detained amid demonstrations across Belarus after a disputed presidential election as they sought to stem rising public anger over a brutal police crackdown on peaceful protests and avoid Western sanctions.
Many who were released spoke of beatings and other abuse by police, and some showed bruises on their bodies. Some wept as they embraced waiting relatives.
Demonstrators have swarmed the streets since Sunday’s election in which officials reported that President Alexander Lukashenko won 80% of the vote to extend his 26-year authoritarian hold on power.
The protests continued on Friday as thousands again rallied across the country and Mr Lukashenko’s main challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who fled on Tuesday to neighbouring Lithuania, posted a video in which she disputed the results of the vote and demanded that the government start a dialogue with demonstrators.
European Union foreign ministers are due to meet to discuss possible sanctions against Belarus.
Nearly 7,000 people have been detained and hundreds injured since Sunday as police dispersed largely peaceful demonstrations with stun grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets and severe beatings. At least one person has been killed.
Thousands of factory workers who previously formed the core of Mr Lukashenko’s base have joined the protests, denouncing the crackdown and demanding a new election, raising the prospect of a nationwide strike.
Workers rallied at many major factories in an unprecedented challenge to the president, who has been in power since 1994 and earned the nickname of “Europe’s last dictator” for his suppression of dissent.
He warned on Friday that the strikes would deepen the damage inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic and could lead to Belarus losing its niche in global markets.
“Everyone is fighting for markets, and if we stop we will never be able to resume production,” he said. “You must explain it to the people.”
He did not directly address the election and the protests, but Natalya Kochanova, speaker of the upper house of parliament, said late on Thursday that more than 1,000 detainees had been released that day following Mr Lukashenko’s order to law enforcement agencies to look more closely into the detentions.
“We don’t need a war, we don’t need a fight,” she said in televised remarks.
Valiantsin Stefanovich of the Viasna rights centre confirmed that about 1,000 people were released from jails in Minsk and Zhodino, adding: “The authorities are obviously trying to de-escalate the situation and ease the tensions, fearing that the furious industrial workers will take to the streets all across Belarus.”
The Interior Ministry later said 2,000 detainees had been freed and more will follow.
After a violent crackdown, police stood back on Thursday as thousands of people formed “lines of solidarity” in Minsk and other cities.
Women, many of them dressed in white and carrying flowers and portraits of detained loved ones, spearheaded the human chains as motorists honked in support. Authorities again did not interfere with the demonstrations on Friday.
Dozens of military and police veterans posted videos in which they dumped their uniforms in bins.
The demonstrations have spread even though the protest lacks leaders. Ms Tsikhanouskaya urged her supporters to stop protests in an earlier video that her associates said was recorded under pressure from law enforcement officials while she was still in Minsk.
The 37-year-old former teacher had joined the race to replace her husband, an opposition blogger, who has been jailed since May.
In her new video released on Friday, she again challenged the election results, saying that copies of protocols from precincts where the vote was counted fairly show her winning 60% to 70%. She urged the government to end violence and engage in dialogue with protesters.
“The Belarusians will never want to live under the current government,” she said. “The authorities have turned peaceful demonstrations into a bloodbath.”