Police in Belarus detained more than 200 people and cordoned off streets in the capital, Minsk, to prevent fresh protests on March 27, as the opposition vowed to breathe new life into the pro-democracy movement after braving months of repression.
Belarus was rocked by massive protests in the wake of an August election that authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka claimed extended his iron-fisted rule for a sixth term, despite the opposition and West saying the vote was rigged.
Hundreds of thousands took to the streets for weeks to protest the election, but harsh winter weather and a brutal crackdown slowed the protest movement’s momentum in recent months.
The opposition Telegram channel Nexta, which helps mobilize and coordinate protests, told its 1.4 million followers that the events on March 27 would be the “first mass exit” of Belarusians this year.
“We’re back to the streets,” Nexta wrote, signaling that the opposition is prepared for a new wave of protests in the form of scattered rallies across the country. “We have prepared a new scenario. This tactic is designed to exhaust and disorient the security forces. It is also important for us to protect people."
The Viasna human rights center reported police had detained at least 240 people, including five journalists. Nearly all the detentions were in Minsk.
Protest organizers had planned for protests in the city center, but due to a heavy security presence and cordoned off streets they called for supporters to gather in courtyards and adjacent streets near Yakub Kolas Square.
Photos and video from central Minsk showed military vehicles, police vans, and blocked off streets, with security forces reportedly randomly detaining people and throwing them into minivans. Pro-government protesters waving flags from cars were also observed.
The Interior Ministry said that, across the country, “not a single unauthorized mass event was recorded.”
“Small groups with unregistered symbols were seen in Minsk. Some protesters were taken in for investigation,” the Interior Ministry said.
Viasna reported that police were carrying out “spot detentions” and looking at people’s phones in central parts of the city and in side streets near to where protesters were to gather.
Among those detained were two editors of the independent Tut.by news website, Galina Ulasik and her colleague Anna Kaltygina.
Another outlet, Nasha Niva, with 90,000 Telegram followers, said its editor in chief, Yahor Martsinovich, a photographer, and a reporter were detained.
By evening, all five journalists had been released.
The relatively muted protests came days after scattered demonstrations in Minsk on March 25 to mark Freedom Day, commemorating the founding of a short-lived democratic Belarusian republic more than 100 years ago. Viasna reported police detained at least 176 people on that day.
Since protests erupted last summer, more than 30,000 people have been detained, hundreds beaten, several killed, and there have been widespread reports of torture.
Most the opposition leadership has been arrested or forced into exile, including Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who has been rallying international support for the pro-democracy movement since relocating to Lithuania.
In response to the repression, the West has slapped sanctions on top officials and refused to recognize Lukashenka as the legitimate leader of the former Soviet republic.