Authorities in Belarus say they have arrested more than 6,000 people during three nights of violently suppressed demonstrations against vote-rigging in Sunday’s disputed presidential election, as more footage and accounts emerged of police beating and violently detaining protesters.
Opposition leaders have been jailed and driven out of the country in a massive crackdown following the election, which the election commission said was won in a landslide by President Alexander Lukashenko.
Among those to have fled is Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the main opposition candidate, who left for Lithuania after an apparent threat to her children.
Opposition members have accused police of attacking protesters with impunity. Video showed police officers shooting passersby with rubber bullets and beating demonstrators with truncheons after their arrest.
State television aired video on Wednesday of protesters with bruises on their faces being interrogated by police in a room. “So are we going to keep making a revolution?” an altered voice behind the camera asks. The protesters shake their heads in response.
In Brest, a region in the country’s south-west, law enforcement confirmed that they’d used live ammunition to fire at protesters, injuring one. The interior ministry claimed the protesters had attacked them with steel bars. The ministry later removed the reference to “live ammunition” from its statement.
At a detention centre on the outskirts of the capital, Minsk, desperate families have gathered each morning begging police for information on relatives who have gone missing at the protests. As dark green police vans arrived to bring more prisoners, there were shouts of “Shame!”
“My son was going home to his wife on Monday evening and I haven’t heard from him since,” said 75-year-old Natalia, in tears. Others brought bags of food and other supplies in the hope of being able to hand them over to those inside.
In a rally near a Minsk market on Wednesday, hundreds of women wearing white and holding flowers formed a human chain to protest against police brutality and mass arrests.
“I came here because many of my friends have been arrested and we don’t know where they are,” said one young women. “I saw these arrests yesterday, it’s impossible to watch, I’m worried about them.”
The Belarus Free Theatre, an underground theatre group critical of the government, reported that two of its members had been arrested and said they were being held in desperate conditions.
“Our managing directors #SvetlanaSugako and #NadezhdaBrodskaya were jailed for 10 and 13 days respectively. During their court hearings we were told that a single cell (3mx4m) now contains 36 people in female bloc and 50 in male,” the group tweeted. Another woman recently released from the jail confirmed the account of overcrowding in cells to the Guardian.
Dozens of journalists from Russia have been arrested, many from Russian news agencies, and news crews have been attacked by police and had their cameras broken.
The Belarusian interior ministry tallied 3,000 detentions after rallies on Monday night, 2,000 on Tuesday, and another 1,000 on Wednesday, according to the agency’s Telegram feed.
Lukashenko has dismissed the protests. “Most of these so-called protesters are people with a criminal past and currently unemployed,” he said.
Internet service in Belarus appeared to improve on Wednesday after a nearly three-day blackout that appeared devised to throttle the protests. The blackout was a rare example in Europe of a government voluntarily knocking its entire country offline to stifle dissent.
The EU has threatened to reimpose sanctions over suspected vote-rigging and the violent crackdown on demonstrators, and has announced an emergency meeting of foreign ministers on Friday to discuss Belarus. The bloc’s most senior foreign policy official, Josep Borrell, said Sunday’s vote had been “neither free nor fair”.
Borrell has promised an “in-depth review” of EU relations with Belarus, threatening sanctions against “those responsible for the observed violence, unjustified arrests, and falsification of election results”.
The Dutch foreign minister, Stefan Blok, said on Tuesday that a reintroduction of sanctions had not been ruled out, but it was important to avoid measures that would affect the Belarusian population.
Any sanctions must win the support of all 27 member states, and doubts remain about backing from Hungary’s leader, Viktor Orbán, who in June called for remaining restrictions to be dropped.
According to Belarus’s election commission, Tikhanovskaya took 10% of the vote while Lukashenko won 80%. Tikhanovskaya has filed a complaint against the results.
On Tuesday evening, protesters in Minsk clashed with police, who used stun grenades and rubber bullets to try to disperse the crowds. Protesters’ anger intensified over police attacks on demonstrators laying flowers at the site where a young man was killed a day earlier.
In a video published on Tuesday morning, a visibly distressed Tikhanovskaya indicated she had faced an ultimatum involving her family and had been forced to flee for neighbouring Lithuania. “God forbid you face the kind of choice that I faced,” she said. “Children are the most important thing in our lives.”
The circumstances of Tikhanovskaya’s departure suggested that Lukashenko was increasing pressure on her as he sought to quash the biggest protests of his 26 years in power.
The first fatality was confirmed on Monday when police said a man died after an explosive device went off in his hand. Opposition supporters have blamed police for his death. On Tuesday, people laying flowers and white ribbon at the spot in Minsk where he died were allegedly targeted by riot police.
The human rights group Viasna reported mass detentions in the cities of Grodno, Brest and Vitebsk.
The White House said it was “deeply concerned” by the violence. Poland offered to act as a mediator between Lukashenko and the opposition and called for an emergency EU summit.
Lukashenko, often referred to as Europe’s last dictator, has vowed not to allow Belarus to be “torn apart” and dismissed the protesters as pawns of foreign powers.
The Belarusian foreign ministry said on Tuesday it had “irrefutable” evidence of “interference from abroad”.
Additional reporting by Jennifer Rankin in Brussels and Martin Farrer