Police in Belarus have detained dozens of protesters who gathered in the capital’s central square in an effort to end weeks of demonstrations challenging the re-election of the country’s authoritarian ruler.
The crackdown in Independence Square on Wednesday came on the 18th straight day of protests pushing for the resignation of President Alexander Lukashenko.
The Belarusian leader who has ruled the nation of 9.5 million for 26 years has dismissed the protesters as Western puppets and refused to engage in dialogue with the opposition contesting his August 9 re-election to a sixth term.
After a brutal crackdown on demonstrators in the first days of post-election protests, which caused international outrage and helped swell protesters’ numbers, the authorities changed tactics and let daily demonstrations go unhindered for nearly two weeks.
The government, meanwhile, has maintained pressure on the opposition with threats and selective jailing of its leaders.
Wednesday’s police action marks the return to force, albeit on a smaller scale compared to the post-election crackdown, when nearly 7,000 people were detained, hundreds were injured and at least three protesters died.
Shortly after several hundred protesters gathered on the Independence Square for an evening protest that has become a daily occurrence, waving their red-and-white flags and chanting “Go away!” to push for Mr Lukashenko’s resignation, police trucks pulled in.
Officers grabbed demonstrators and dragged them into trucks, tearing away their flags and placards.
“It’s a clear act of intimidation,” said Valiantsin Stefanovich of the Viasna rights centre. “The authorities have stopped beatings, but fear and threats remain their main weapon.”
As part of a multi-pronged effort to stifle protest, Svetlana Alexievich, who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature, was summoned for questioning earlier on Wednesday over her role in an opposition council created to facilitate talks on a transition of power.
Prosecutors have opened a criminal probe against the Coordinating Council members, accusing them of undermining the country’s security.
Ms Alexievich insisted that she and other council members have done nothing wrong.
“Our goal is to unite society and help overcome a political crisis,” she told reporters. “We must win with our spirit and the strength of our beliefs.”
On Tuesday, two other council members were handed 10-day jail terms for organising unsanctioned protests, and several others were called for questioning.
The United States and the European Union have criticised the Belarusian vote as neither free nor fair and urged Mr Lukashenko’s government to engage in a dialogue with the opposition.
Ahead of a two-day EU foreign ministers’ meeting starting on Thursday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned that “it’s absolutely unacceptable that members of the Coordinating Council are arrested, interrogated and intimidated”,
“With the daily increasing repression against peaceful protesters the leadership in Minsk is increasingly sidelining itself,” said Mr Maas, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the 27-nation bloc. “We won’t let serious human rights abuses and breaches of fundamental democratic principles go unanswered.”
Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled the country with an iron fist since 1994, has dismissed protesters as Western puppets and rejected offers of mediation from the EU.