Authorities in Belarus have detained about 500 people during weekend protests against the country’s authoritarian president.
Belarus’ Interior Ministry said 150 protesters were detained on Saturday and over 350 more on Sunday, when protests spanned 22 cities in the biggest challenge yet to Alexander Lukashenko, who claimed a sixth term in office in an election in August widely seen as rigged.
About 100,000 demonstrators marched in the Belarusian capital of Minsk on Sunday, demanding the resignation of Mr Lukashenko, who has cracked down hard on opposition and independent news media during 26 years in power.
According to the Viasna human rights group, the clampdown on the protesters this weekend was not as violent as before.
“Repressions get stuck when more than 100,000 people take to the streets,” Viasna head Ales Bialiatski said. “The authorities’ scare tactics don’t work anymore.”
Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians have been protesting daily since the August 9 presidential election, which officials claim handed Mr Lukashenko a victory with 80% of the vote.
Both opposition members and some poll workers say the vote was rigged, and the United States and the European Union have condemned the election as neither free nor fair. Many European countries have refused to recognise Mr Lukashenko as the legitimate leader after his unexpected inauguration earlier this week.
During the first days after the election, police used tear gas, truncheons and rubber bullets to disperse crowds. Some protesters died, many were injured and nearly 7,000 were detained. Amid international outrage over the violent suppression of the protests, Belarusian authorities switched to prosecuting top activists.
Belarusian authorities have opened a criminal probe into members of the Co-ordination Council, created by the opposition to push for a peaceful transition of power, on the charges of undermining national security. Many members have been arrested or forced to leave the country.
On Monday, Svetlana Alexievich, the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature and the only member of the council’s executive presidium still free in Belarus, left for Germany. The council told The Associated Press that Ms Alexievich will spend a month in Germany and receive medical treatment, then she plans to travel to Italy and come back to Belarus.
The council also reported that the health of Maxim Znak, another top council member who was jailed earlier this month and has been on hunger strike since September 18, took a sharp turn for the worse.
It urged authorities to release Mr Znak and make “quality medical treatment” available to him and urged Mr Znak himself to stop the strike.