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Thousands In Belarus Attend 'Canceled' Opposition Rally Despite Pressure

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Opposition supporters attend a rally in Minsk, on August 6.

MINSK -- Thousands of people gathered in a park in the Belarusian capital on August 6 in support of opposition presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya after she had to cancel her campaign event following the city authorities' abrupt decision to replace her rallies in Minsk with government-organized events.

After being forced to cancel their campaign events in the Peoples' Friendship Park and the Kyiv Park in downtown Minsk, Tsikhanouskaya and her associates, Maryya Kalesnikava and Veranika Tsapkala, announced that they would attend "as ordinary Belarusian citizens" the event hastily announced by the authorities in the Kyiv Park.

Tsikhanouskaya was not seen at the gathering, but Kalesnikava arrived at the site before being prevented by the police from entering the park.

Kalesnikava said later that she had arrived by car with Tsikhanouskaya and Tsapkala nearby and decided to enter the park separately after being surrounded by hundreds of people, but the two were apparently prevented from entering by police.

Meanwhile, two sound engineers at the government-organized event, Kiryl Halanau and Uladzislau Sakalouski, played Soviet-era rock star Viktor Tsoi's We Want Changes, prompting the crowds to start singing along with the song, which was the anthem of the late 1980s Soviet youth before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

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Halanau and Sakalouski were promptly detained and charged with minor hooliganism and disobedience.

On August 7, in two separate court hearings, Halanau and Sakalouski were found guilty of minor hooliganism and disobeying police and sentenced to 10 days in jail each. The men rejected the charges.

The demonstrators then marched across the city, clapping and chanting "Long live Belarus!" and "Go away!" -- an apparent message for incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, whose 26 years of authoritarian rule looks increasingly vulnerable ahead of the August 9 election.

Analysts, however, say Lukashenka is likely win through a combination of fraud and the repression of the energized opposition.

Earlier on August 6, Tsikhanouskaya's campaign chief, Maryya Maroz, was briefly detained in Minsk and "warned" of possible repercussions for staging "unsanctioned" rallies.

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Read our coverage as Belarusians take to the streets to demand the resignation of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and call for new elections after official results from the August 9 presidential poll gave Lukashenka a landslide victory.

Also on August 6, the authorities continued to detain other members of Tsikhanouskaya's campaign team and her supporters in towns and cities across Belarus.

The European Union and the United States have expressed concerns over ongoing crackdown on opposition politicians, journalists, and rights defenders and called on the Belarusian authorities to hold free elections.

On August 7, EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell issued a statement calling on the Belarusian authorities to ensure fundamental freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly and to guarantee candidates' full political rights.

"The country's sovereignty and independence can only be strengthened by peaceful, free, and fair elections," Borrell said.

He also urged the authorities to immediately release all activists, human rights defenders, bloggers, and journalists detained on political grounds.

Tsikhanouskaya has managed to gather tens of thousands of supporters at rallies in Minsk and in other towns and cities across Belarus in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, several popular singers and pop groups from Russia canceled their concerts in Belarus, which many believe were organized in support of Lukashenka. They include Leonid Agutin, Yulianna Karaulova, Grigory Leps, Dzharo&Khanza, Rasa, and Kar-Men, who were invited to Minsk and other Belarusian cities to perform on August 8, the day before the election.

Writing about their decisions on social networks, some said that they wanted to stay away from politics.

American rappers Tyga and Saint Jhn, who were also invited to the concerts, said on August 7 that they canceled their concerts in Belarus as well.

In a related development, the Central Election Commission said on August 6 that turnout during three days of early voting was 22.47 percent of the country's 6.8 million eligible voters.

Opposition politicians, rights activists, and critics of Lukashenka have called on citizens to refrain from early voting, which started on August 4, charging that it gives Lukashenka loyalists more opportunities to rig the election results.

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