Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Belarus on Sunday in what appeared to be their largest demonstration yet against the widely-disputed reelection of President Alexander Lukashenko.
Lukashenko, who has been labeled "Europe's last dictator," first took office in 1994 and staked his claim to a sixth term after declaring a landslide victory in the country's election last Sunday. Opponents immediately condemned the results as rigged, and a wide cross-section of citizens have been calling for change at protests every day since.
An especially massive crowd gathered in the capital of Minsk to participate in a "Freedom March" on Sunday. Many were dressed in red and white, the colors of the opposition.
Immense crowds,tens of thousands are gathering right now in #Minsk. People are still coming. They are protesting against #Lukashenko and police brutality. There's no leader but people are self-organised and peaceful. The plan was changed last-minute,but people knew where to come pic.twitter.com/XAePwZX4nA— Hanna Liubakova (@HannaLiubakova) August 16, 2020
Images and videos posted on social media captured the scale of the demonstrations in Minsk: Independence Square packed to the brim, with cheerful crowds waving the opposition flag.
There was no official count of the crowd size, though the sweeping demonstration appears to be the largest in the country's history. The Associated Press reported that as many as 200,000 people turned out in Minsk.
The protests dwarfed a pro-government rally held there earlier in the day, at which Lukashenko gave a speech blasting opponents, defending the election results and rejecting calls for a re-vote. While the government says 65,000 people attended that rally, the BBC estimated attendance was actually closer to four or five thousand.
Speaking to his followers, Lukashenko likened his opponents to rats, said it was not his fault he needed to call on supporters for their help and warned that Belarus would perish "as a state" if it held new elections, contending the results could not have been falsified.
"They say elections results were forged. But how can 80% be forged? They want us to hold new elections. But how will we work in the fields if we must have new elections?" Lukashenko said.
The nation's Central Election Commission said Lukashenko won 80% of the vote, with main opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya coming in second with 10%.
Tikhanovskaya, who fled the country to neighboring Lithuania after the election, said in a video statement released on Friday that documentation at polling places showed she had the support of a majority of voters.
In her message, Tikhanovskaya also called for mayors across the country to organize peaceful rallies over the weekend.
"There are new types of peaceful protests on the streets of our cities," she said. "Women with flowers are coming out in solidarity. They are not belligerent in any way. They are showing the whole world that we Belarusians are open and honest people, and we are against violence."
Sunday's demonstrations were a continued response to more violent scenes from earlier in the week, when police cracked down on peaceful protesters in what Amnesty International described as a "campaign of widespread torture and other ill-treatment."
Police used unnecessary and excessive force on protesters in the streets and in detention centers, according to human rights groups and eyewitness accounts.
The Belarusian Ministry of the Interior said 6,700 people were detained over the first four days of protests. The ministry said that as of Friday, some 2,000 detainees were released as part of a gradual process, the Associated Press reported.
According to local media reports, the whereabouts of about 80 detainees were unknown as of Sunday.
At least 250 people were injured since the start of the demonstrations, according to the United Nations. Amnesty International said two protesters have died, one in a crowd in Minsk and one in custody in the city of Brest.
Amnesty said that with the aid of local human rights groups it has collected numerous testimonies from protesters across Belarus who described being tortured in detention centers "starting from the moment when they are dragged inside police buses." Reports include being stripped naked, severely beaten and threatened with rape.
Dan Peleschuk, a freelance journalist detained in Minsk earlier this week, recalled his own experience and described the riot police as "violence-crazed thugs with great authority and a great amount of resources by the state" in an interview with NPR on Sunday.
He also noted that protesters come from all walks of life, including students, technology workers, small business owners and factory workers.
"There is no sense of radicalization among these protesters," Peleschuk said. "It's sort of a united front of social discontent."
Absolutely insane scenes from Minsk. Hundreds of thousands of people, "paratroopers are with the people", "Beltelecom are on line with the people", underground metro drivers are with the people! This the the beginning of a beautiful story! pic.twitter.com/KIjvkGOFjl— Tadeusz Giczan (@TadeuszGiczan) August 16, 2020
Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said earlier in the week that the massive arrests were a clear violation of international human rights standards.
"People have the right to speak up and express dissent, even more in the context of elections, when democratic freedoms should be upheld, not suppressed," she said.
Bachelet called for the immediate release of everyone unlawfully detained and for thorough investigations into all allegations of human rights violations.
On Friday, EU foreign ministers echoed those calls, affirming their support for the protesters and saying they do not accept the election results because they consider them to have been falsified.
"Ministers also agreed on the need to sanction those responsible for violence, repression and the falsification of election results," according to a statement from the office of Josep Borrell, the high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy. "The work on additional listings within the existing sanctions framework for Belarus will start immediately."
So too has the Trump administration. In a statement last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, "We strongly condemn ongoing violence against protesters and the detention of opposition supporters, as well as the use of internet shutdowns to hinder the ability of the Belarusian people to share information about the election and the demonstrations."
Pompeo also said the United States was "deeply concerned about the conduct of the August 9 presidential election in Belarus, which was not free and fair."
Questions remain about the potential geopolitical ramifications of last week's elections, including as they relate to the relationship between Belarus and Russia.
Also at Sunday's rally, Lukashenko took issue with NATO military exercises happening in neighboring Poland and Lithuania and voiced concerns about foreign interference.
In response, a NATO spokesperson said on Twitter that there is no NATO buildup in the region. She described its presence in the eastern part of the alliance as "strictly defensive, proportionate & designed to prevent conflict & preserve peace."