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Belarus Braces For Third Night Of Protests To Dispute Election Results


A woman gestures toward riot police in the city of Homel on August 10.
A woman gestures toward riot police in the city of Homel on August 10.

MINSK -- Demonstrators gathering in the Belarusian capital for a third straight day to protest the official election results were met by a heavy police presence, with protest chants and car horns answered by tear gas fired by security forces.

The international community, meanwhile, continued to weigh in on the August 9 election, with the European Union declaring the vote "neither free nor fair" and threatening to impose sanctions against those responsible for the violence against peaceful protesters.

Live video streamed online from central Minsk showed multiple incidents in which people were forcibly detained by police in full riot gear.

In one case, OMON security forces called for backup to come quickly as they pinned a man to the ground as demonstrators, many recording video on their phones, approached.

The man was eventually dragged to a waiting van and driven away.

Belarusian Opposition Candidate 'Forced' To Leave Country
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A similar scene unfolded in front of the Pushkin subway station, one of seven stations in the city center that were closed as the authorities braced for another night of protests against what opponents of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka have called a "rigged" election.

Preliminary official results of the August 9 vote announced by the Central Election Commission (TsVK) gave Lukashenka a landslide victory with more than 80 percent of the vote, while the official tally for his main rival, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, was less than 10 percent.

The latest demonstrations took place after it was announced that Tsikhanouskaya had left Belarus and was in Lithuania.

Tsikhanouskaya surfacing in Lithuania -- announced by the Baltic country's foreign minister, Linas Linkevicius, on Twitter on August 11 -- followed reports that she had visited Belarus's Central Election Commission (CEC) headquarters on August 10 to file a complaint about the official outcome of the vote.

Tsikhanouskaya had refused to accept the results, which sparked nationwide protests that featured clashes between police and demonstrators who claim the vote was rigged.

Appearing emotionally shaken in a video released on August 11 and uploaded on the YouTube channel of her husband, Syarhey Tskihanouski, Tsikhanouskaya was shown reading a prepared statement in which she said she'd made the decision to leave Belarus on her own. It was not immediately clear whether the video had been made in Belarus on August 10 or after she'd arrived in Lithuania:

"I made a very difficult decision," Tsikhanouskaya said in the video. "That decision I made by myself. Neither friends, relatives, the campaign team, nor Syarhey could affect it in any way. I know that many will understand me, many will judge me, and many will hate me. But, you know, God forbid, [you have to] face the dilemma I had to face."

But an ally of Tsikhanouskaya, Maryya Kalesnikava, said on August 11 that the video statement was made under duress after Tsikhanouskaya had been held without a lawyer for three hours by "high-ranking law enforcement" officers when she tried to register her complaint.

"Svyatlana was there without contact with us," Kalesnikava said. "The recent video is the result of these three hours."

A second video -- also released on August 11, but on the Telegram channel of the Russia-based MBKhMedia and Belarus's pro-government Telegram channel Zhyoltye Slivy -- showed Tsikhanouskaya wearing the same clothing and sitting on a green couch that cybersleuths said looked strikingly similar to furniture previously seen in video footage taken in the CEC headquarters.

In that video, Tsikhanouskaya called on all Belarusians to use "good judgment" and to show "respect for the law."

"I do not want blood and violence," Tsikhanouskaya said in that 37-second video clip. "I ask you not to stand against police, do not go out to the squares so that you do not put your lives in danger. Take care of yourselves and your loved ones."

As evening set in on August 11, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported that there had been small-scale attempts to protest the vote with strikes and sit-ins. Live-stream footage carried by Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, showed a heavy police presence and peaceful demonstrators gathering in the city center, chanting "Hello Belarus" and holding up protest signs.

The BBC reported that there was nearly no Internet service available in the capital and in other major cities, and that hospitals were "ready to receive large numbers of casualties."

The two nights of protests have resulted in hundreds of arrests. Scores of injuries have been reported and at least one protester died in Minsk overnight on August 9-10 amid clashes between riot police and demonstrators.

The Belarusian Interior Ministry confirmed that one protester died in Minsk. The ministry said an unidentified explosive device blew up in his hand as he was trying to throw it at police.

But witnesses and correspondents at the scene say police were shooting stun grenades into a crowd of protesters at the time of the demonstrator's death.

Police also used tear gas, water cannons, and stun grenades to disperse crowds of demonstrators overnight in more than a dozen other cities across Belarus -- including Babruysk, Brest, Vitsebsk, Homel, Hrodna, Mahilyou, Byaroza, and Mazyr.

Bloody Clashes As Belarus Protests Continued For Second Night
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RFE/RL’s correspondents reported from the southeastern city of Homel that at least 500 people were detained overnight when riot police moved in and violently dispersed a crowd of demonstrators.

In an August 11 press release, Human Rights Watch said that Belarusian security forces had "viciously beat and detained largely peaceful protesters over the country’s election outcome on August 9 and 10" and had "variously used stun grenades, rubber bullets and slugs, blanks from AK-variant rifles, and tear gas."

The same day, the Investigative Committee of Belarus warned citizens that they would face repercussions for "illegal actions."

"The Investigative Committee once again appeals to citizens. Do not follow provocations by the organizers of the riots," it said in a statement. "Think about the consequences of your actions, be prudent. We remind you that such illegal actions will certainly lead to criminal liability."

Tsikhanouskaya's spokesperson Volha Kavalkova said on August 11 that Belarusian authorities had taken Tsikhanuskaya out of the country.

"Svyatlana had no choice," Kavalkova said. "It is important that she is free and alive. She left along with her campaign chief Maryya Maroz. But part of Svyatlana’s team continues to be held hostage here” in Belarus.

Kavalkova said Tsikhanouskaya's campaign team would hold "emergency consultations" later on August 11. But she said the campaign team now has two main goals: to defend the choice of the Belarusian people and to stop violence and bloodshed.

Tsikhanouskaya entered the race after her husband, a popular vlogger and potential opposition candidate, was jailed.

She has said she considers herself the election winner.

On August 11, EU chief diplomat Josep Borrell, writing on behalf of EU members, declared that the vote was "neither free nor fair" and threatened "measures on those responsible for the observed violence, unjustified arrests, and falsification of election results."

In its first comment since the election, the White House said on August 10 that it was "deeply concerned by the Belarus presidential election...and we urge the Belarusian government to respect the right to peaceably assemble and to refrain from the use of force."

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed that sentiment in a separate statement on August 10, urging the Belarusian government “to respect the rights of all Belarusians to participate in peaceful assembly, refrain from use of force, and release those wrongfully detained.”

The Belarusian parliament on August 11 condemned what it called attempts by a "few politically biased groups" to destabilize the country, saying that "the path of violence is unacceptable for the Belarusian people."

Lukashenka on August 10 repeated allegations that forces abroad were trying to manipulate protesters, whom he referred to as "sheep," in order to topple him.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, BelTA, Reuters, AP, and AFP
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