Belarus Protests Turn Violent After Vote
10:38, 20/10/2004, The Associated Press, photo by AFP, NTV
Police clashed with students and seriously beat the leader of Belarus` main opposition party Tuesday, witnesses said, in protests against a referendum that gave the authoritarian leader the right to run for president again but was widely denounced as fraudulent. Belarus` top police officials said 46 people were detained during the protests against President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled this former Soviet republic with an iron fist for 10 years.
In Sunday`s referendum, 77 percent of those who voted supported the measure to scrap the two-term limit on presidents, according to election officials. Legislative elections held simultaneously gave no seats to opposition parties. International observers and an independent exit poll, however, suggested the voting was neither free nor fair and the results were flawed.
Thousands of young Belarusians held a noisy evening protest in a square near the presidential administration Monday night and marched to the headquarters of the security agency, the KGB.
Tuesday night, police detained at least 30 people in the crowd of about 300 students who marched down a central street shouting "Lukashenko lost!"
Associated Press photographer Sergei Grits, who was covering the event, also was briefly detained and released.
A confrontation broke out later after police dragged several protesters into a pizza restaurant. Angry demonstrators then massed outside the restaurant, beating on the glass doors and yelling "Fascists!" and "Freedom!"
Police moved into the crowd and pulled at least five demonstrators away. Top opposition leader Anatoly Lebedko, head of the United Civil Party, was dragged through the restaurant`s kitchen and out a back door, party spokeswoman Yekaterina Tkachenko said. She said police severely beat Lebedko, who was hospitalized in serious condition. He was ordered to report to a police station on Wednesday, she said.
Interior Minister Vladimir Naumov said 46 protesters were detained and were being held at a police precinct, including Lebedko and two other opposition leaders, Nikolai Statkevich and Pavel Severinets, the Interfax news agency reported.
Lukashenko has cracked down harshly on dissent, jailing some opponents and forcing others into exile. Police frequently beat opposition demonstrators, and Lukashenko`s associates were allegedly involved in the disappearance of four prominent public figures over the past few years.
For most Belarusians who don`t like Lukashenko, dissent is limited to small signs of disrespect. Grandmothers who harvest potatoes to supplement their meager pensions have nicknamed their stern foreman "Our Lukashenko" and they don`t mean it as a compliment.
No one, including this ex-Soviet republic`s beleaguered opposition, sees a massive uprising as a possibility for now.
The government completely controls television and radio, where opposition members are portrayed as enemies of the nation and agents of the West. Large rallies require 15 days` notice for permission, and usually opposition events are relegated to a park outside the city center.
The opposition has tried in the past to bring tens of thousands of people into the streets. It succeeded in 1996, but nothing changed.
"There is fear," Lebedko said before he was beaten by police. "The hundreds on the street know that millions are sitting in their kitchens saying the vote didn`t go right. But we need to break through that psychological barrier: They don`t believe GÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Â¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Âª they are the majority."