More than 1,000 demonstrators joined together in the Belarusian capital on May 24 to oppose another term for longtime President Alyaksandr Lukshenka in one of the biggest protests of the year in that country.
The challenge against a sixth term for Lukashenka comes less than three months before an election and with outside groups warning of a roundup and other measures to clamp down on dissent in the post-Soviet country of around 9 million.
The demonstration was reportedly organized jointly by Mikalay Statkevich -- a former presidential challenger whose candidacy for the August 9 presidential election was rejected last week -- and opposition blogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski, who was recently jailed over an "unsanctioned mass gathering" and whose candidacy was also nixed by authorities.
Some of the attendees signed up to back the candidacy of Tsikhanouski's wife, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
Many of those who turned up near the Kamarouski market in downtown Minsk on May 24 wore masks and physically distanced in an apparent riposte to Lukashenka's public rejection of the COVID-19 pandemic as a "psychosis," despite climbing infection and death tolls in Belarus.
GALLERY: Belarusians Protest Against Lukashenka's Run For Sixth Term As President (CLICK TO VIEW)
Police, accustomed to shutting down gatherings of government critics on the slightest pretext, did not intervene.
Belarus, which has reported more than 36,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including an improbably low 199 deaths, hasn't ordered a lockdown.
It bucked other countries' cancellation of major sporting competitions and even of gatherings earlier this month to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, instead holding a military-style parade attended by thousands of spectators.
None of the elections since Lukashenka took power in 1994 has been deemed free or fair by Western standards.
Belarus abolished presidential term limits in a referendum in 2004.
Statkevich ran against Lukashenka in a 2010 presidential election that was widely decried as rigged and was followed by a brutal crackdown.
Statkevich was arrested after attending a large demonstration protesting the 2010 results and spent 5 years in prison after being convicted of organizing riots at a trial criticized by human rights groups and Western governments as unfair.
The Belarusian Central Election Commission on May 19 rejected documents filed by an initiative group for a Statkevich candidacy, citing his "criminal record."
Tsikhanouski controls a popular YouTube channel, called The Country For Life, which frequently challenges Belarusian officialdom.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned this week that authorities in Belarus have intensified their crackdown on independent activists and journalists with a “new wave of arbitrary arrests” ahead of the election.
The rights watchdog noted that more than 120 peaceful protesters, opposition bloggers, journalists, and other government critics had been arrested in 17 Belarusian cities between May 6 and 13.
Critics of Lukashenka, who has been in power in Belarus for more than 25 years, say his government has shown little tolerance for dissent and independent media.
The country has been the target of U.S. and EU sanctions over its poor rights record and lack of fair elections, but Belarus and the West have recently sought to mend ties in an apparent bid to reduce Russia’s influence in the country.