Disabled hold rally in Belarus to demand president step down

International

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, right, welcomes Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya before a meeting at the federal chancellery in Vienna, Austria, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — More than 200 disabled people rallied in Belarus’ capital Thursday, continuing a nearly three-month wave of protests triggered by the disputed reelection of the country’s authoritarian leader.

They demonstrated in Minsk’s central avenue chanting “Go away!” and “Your time is over!” to demand President Alexander Lukashenko’s resignation. Several people were detained.

More than 15,000 people have been arrested since the protests erupted after Lukashenko’s reelection to a sixth term in the Aug. 9 election, which was widely seen as rigged. Most served short jail terms or were fined, but 100 have remained in jail, described as political prisoners by human rights groups.

The United States and the European Union have rejected the Belarusian vote as neither free nor fair and introduced sanctions against Belarusian officials accused of involvement in vote-rigging and the post-election crackdown.

Lukashenko’s main challenger in the vote, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, met Thursday in Vienna with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. Tsikhanouskaya, who moved to Lithuania after the vote under pressure from Belarusian authorities, has pushed for Lukashenko’s resignation and a new election.

A report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s rapporteur Wolfgang Benedek pointed at “massive and systematic” human rights abuses, including “well-documented cases of torture and ill-treatment in the crackdown by the security forces on political dissent.”

The report presented Thursday urged Belarusian authorities to annul the vote results, call a new presidential election, release all political prisoners and “immediately cease all violence, in particular torture and ill-treatment against peaceful protesters and opponents.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noted that the OSCE report provides the Belarusian authorities with a roadmap out of the crisis, including an end to violence, the release “of all those who have been unjustly detained” and engagement in a national dialogue with the opposition. “We remain inspired by the resilience and dignity of the Belarusian people,” Pompeo said in a statement.

Daily protests in Belarus have continued despite arrests and intimidation by the government. On Wednesday authorities also detained several musicians who had played concerts in courtyards around the capital in a show of solidarity with protesters.

Protests have reached peak numbers on Sundays, attracting crowds of 100,000 or more, but the most recent Sunday protest saw a turnout of only about 20,000 as police toughened their response, blocking streets and dispersing groups of demonstrators. Authorities also launched criminal proceedings against more than 230 participants in Sunday’s protest.

“We want to see the country as it was before the election,” Lukashenko said at an award ceremony on Thursday. “And it shall remain like that for as long as I’m president.”

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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