MINSK, Belarus — Riot police in Belarus on Saturday bundled hundreds of women, including a great-grandmother who has become an icon of the protest movement, into vans as opposition marchers rallied in Minsk seeking an end to President Alexander Lukashenko’s 26-year rule.
The protest was the latest in which Belarusian women have taken to the streets with flowers and flags.
The numbers detained Saturday were far higher than the previous week’s rally. The women were seized by riot police in black uniforms and balaclavas as well as officers in khaki uniforms and plain-clothed officers in face masks.
Police blocked the women and began pulling them into police vans as they stood with linked hands, swiftly detaining hundreds, an AFP journalist saw. Police lifted some women off their feet in order to remove them.
The Viasna rights group published online the names of 328 women detained, while police spokeswoman Olga Chemodanova told AFP the number detained would be announced Sunday.
Police detained so many protesters that they ran out of room in vans, the opposition’s Coordination Council said.
Around two thousand women took part in the “Sparkly March,” wearing shiny accessories and carrying red-and-white flags of the protest movement.
Among those detained on Saturday was Nina Baginskaya, a 73-year-old activist who has become one of the best-known faces of the protest movement, known for her plucky antics and regularly celebrated with a chant of “Nina! Nina!”
Police took away the flag and flowers she was carrying as they pushed her into a van but released her outside a police station shortly afterwards.
The march was the latest in a series of all-women protests calling for the strongman to leave following his disputed victory in elections last month.
His opposition rival Svetlana Tikhanovskaya also claimed victory.
Tikhanovskaya, who has taken shelter in Lithuania, condemned the “arbitrary” detentions, saying police without any identifying badges had “roughly detained en masse beautiful and brave women who were protesting lawfully and peacefully.”
The opposition’s Coordination Council, set up by Tikhanovskaya’s allies to arrange a peaceful handover of power, described the detentions as “a new phase in the escalation of violence against peaceful protesters.”
Tikhanovskaya warned that protesters were ready to strip riot police who carry out “criminal orders” of anonymity.
The Poland-based opposition Telegram channel Nexta published a list of more than 1,000 names and ranks of police offenders, saying it received the data from whistleblowers and would post more if detentions continued.
Witness accounts of police violence and torture of detainees following the elections have prompted the European Parliament to call for sanctions against Lukashenko and other members of his regime.
The protest came as the opposition was due to hold mass demonstrations on Sunday afternoon in Minsk and other cities.
Attempt to silence Tikhanovskaya at UN
On Friday, Belarus and several allies tried to block a video message from Tikhanovskaya at the UN Human Rights Council, where she urged “the strongest” international response to Minsk’s abuses.
Tikhanovskaya demanded “immediate international attention” for her country as it reels from the brutal crackdown on protests over the disputed reelection.
But her short video message, in a rare urgent debate at the council, had barely begun before Belarus Ambassador Yuri Ambrazevich demanded it be switched off. He repeatedly interrupted the screening, raising procedural objections and insisting her words had “no relevance on the substance… on the events that are taking place today.”
He was overruled by council president Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger.
The debate on the rights situation in Belarus, requested by the European Union, focused on violations and the crackdown on the unprecedented demonstrations which broke out after the disputed August 9 elections.
Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet state for 26 years, claimed to have defeated Tikhanovskaya with 80 percent of the vote.
The leader, who on Thursday warned of a possible “war” with some neighboring countries, has refused to step down and has turned to Russia for support.
His security forces have meanwhile detained thousands of protesters, many of whom have accused police of beatings and torture. Several people have died.
Tikhanovskaya insisted that the country’s violation of its international obligations to respect “human dignity and basic human rights… means the international community has a right to react in strongest terms.”
“The scope and the brutality of the extensive force used by the regime is in clear violation of all international norms,” she said.
A long line of countries also voiced alarm.
“We have witnessed a brutal crackdown on peaceful protests,” said German ambassador Michael Freiherr von Ungern-Sternberg on behalf of the EU.
He raised concerns at “reports of attacks on — and torture and cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment of — peaceful protesters as well as harassment, intimidation and detentions of opposition leaders.”
Minsk’s envoy Ambrazevich meanwhile slammed the “lopsided picture of reality presented by the losers in the election,” rejecting allegations of abuse by authorities.
He insisted that protesters had been violent and had injured numerous police officers.
Ambrazevich and his counterparts from Russia, Venezuela and China also voiced multiple objections to statements by the UN deputy rights chief Nada Al-Nashif and Anais Marin, the UN special rapporteur on the rights situation in Belarus, saying they had no place in the debate.
Tikhanovskaya is set to meet European Union foreign ministers and the bloc’s diplomatic chief in Brussels on Monday, in a move that Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova condemned as “flirting with a self-appointed representative of the Belarusian opposition.”
Marin told the council that more than 10,000 people had been “abusively arrested for taking part in peaceful protests,” and lamented that “over 500 cases of torture, committed by state agents, have been reported to us.”
“I have been informed of allegations of rape, electrocution, and other forms of physical and psychological torture,” she told the council via video link, adding that the perpetrators appeared to be acting with “impunity.”
Friday’s debate ended with a vote approving a resolution submitted by the EU insisting that the vast array of serious abuses urgently require “independent investigation.”
The voting process was slowed down by Russia, which proposed 17 amendments to the text, all of which were rejected, and in the end the resolution was adopted unchanged by the 47-member council, with 23 in favor, 22 abstentions and only Venezuela and Eritrea voting against.
The text calls on Belarusian authorities to “enable independent, transparent and impartial investigations into all allegations of human rights violations in the context of the election.”
It also calls on Minsk to “guarantee access to justice and redress for victims as well as full accountability of the perpetrators.”
And it calls on the office of UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet to closely monitor the situation in the country and to present her conclusions in a report during the next council session in March 2021.
The discussions mark only the sixth time in the council’s 14-year history that it has agreed to hold an “urgent debate” — a special debate within a regular session of the council.
During its last session in June, the council held an urgent debate on racism and police brutality following unrest in the United States and beyond over George Floyd’s death.