MINSK -- Thousands of university students have gathered in the Belarusian capital for a march after the country’s opposition called for a nationwide strike to coincide with the first day of the school year.
Columns of students carrying banned red-and-white flags that have long been a symbol of opposition to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s rule flocked into the center of Minsk on September 1.
At least 55 people were detained as riot police dispersed protesters at several locations, according to the Vyasna human rights group. Video posted on social media showed police dressed in black charging into a line of students and forcefully dragging them away.
"September 1 is a day of knowledge. Knowledge of the meaning of Belarusian solidarity. Join this one-day strike, support the workers and show the government who is the real source of power," opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya's team said in a statement.
Lukashenka, who has kept a tight grip on Belarus for 26 years, was declared the winner in an August 9 presidential election, which was widely viewed as rigged in his favor.
Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians have since taken to the streets across the country to protest the results, calling on Lukashenka to step down, release all political prisoners, and hold free and fair elections.
Much of Europe, as well as the United States and other countries, have criticized Lukashenka's crackdown on protesters and opposition members, both before and after the vote.
In a statement on September 1, UN human rights experts said they had received reports of 450 documented cases of torture and ill-treatment of people held in custody since the election.
"Any violation of the non-derogable prohibition of torture and ill-treatment must be prosecuted and punished," they said.
The experts also said that most people reported missing have been accounted for, but the whereabouts and the health situation of at least six individuals are said to be unknown to their relatives.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda on September 1 called on the UN Human Rights Council to immediately convene to discuss the situation in Belarus.
Separately, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia announced on August 31 that they had slapped travel sanctions on several top Belarusian officials, including Lukashenka.
The European Union has agreed to impose sanctions on up to 20 senior Belarusian officials suspected of involvement in election fraud and the brutal crackdown on protesters.
With the goodwill built up during a thaw in relations with the West quickly evaporating, Lukashenka, who has rejected the opposition’s demands, has turned an eye toward the Kremlin, a traditional ally despite recent strains sparked by Minsk's courting of others.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election, widely seen as fraudulent.
On September 1, Lukashenka said that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin will safeguard "our common homeland from Brest to Vladivostok" and that he was ready to reroute the country’s cargo from Baltic ports to Russian ports in response to the sanctions imposed by Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.
"They say, it would be more expensive for Belarus," BelTa news agency quoted Lukashenka as saying.
"Of course, it would be a little bit disadvantageous for us. But we can agree with the Russians on tariffs," he said
Addressing students at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations on September 1, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Western countries of "delivering verdicts" on the crisis in Belarus, which he said is “unacceptable in the modern world."
Moscow has consistently accused the West of interfering in the internal affairs of Belarus.