Thousands of people have taken to the streets of Minsk and other Belarusian cities after a 31-year-old anti-government protester died in hospital following what demonstrators say was a severe beating by security forces.
Witnesses say Roman Bondarenko was detained on Wednesday evening after scuffling with people in plain-clothes who had come to a playground to remove red-and-white ribbons that represent the protest movement against veteran President Alexander Lukashenko.
Protesters carrying flowers and candles formed human chains of solidarity on Friday to honour Bondarenko.
Some of the banners the demonstrators held said, “Stop killing us.”
The Ministry of Internal Affairs denied responsibility for Bondarenko’s death, saying he was killed due to a scuffle with civilians.
The state’s Investigative Committee alleged Bondarenko was drunk, which was disputed in local media, citing the official medical report into his death. An inquiry has been launched.
Bondarenko’s death on Thursday is the latest flashpoint in months of mass protests against Lukashenko following a disputed presidential election in August.
The opposition says Lukashenko rigged the vote to secure a sixth successive term.
People gather to mourn the death of protester Roman Bondarenko [BelaPAN via Reuters]Lukashenko denies electoral fraud and, buoyed by support from traditional ally Russia, has shown no inclination to step down.
More than 17,000 people have been detained – thousands of them brutally beaten – since the August 9 election, human rights advocates have reported.
‘Outrageous and shameful’
The latest violent crackdown prompted a new round of Western sanctions on Belarus.
In a statement on Friday, Peter Stano, the European Union’s spokesman for foreign affairs and security policy, called the death “an outrageous and shameful result of the actions by the Belarusian authorities” who have “directly and violently carried out repression of their own population”.
The EU has already imposed sanctions on Lukashenko and several dozen officials over their role in the security crackdown launched after the contested election.
Stano said the 27-nation bloc “stands ready to impose additional sanctions”.
Lukashenko has been backed by traditional ally Russia [Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters]In a separate video message, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU member states have asked the bloc’s executive to prepare a plan of economic support for Belarus.
“The European Union stands ready to mobilise all its economic means to support and accompany democratic change,” she said.
In an interview with state media on Friday, Lukashenko did not mention Bondarenko’s death and renewed his stance that the ongoing unrest is illegitimate.
He likened it to the “colour revolutions” that overthrew leaders in other post-Soviet countries.
“We unequivocally assess the events taking place in the country after the elections as an attempt at an unconstitutional coup on the patterns of, as they say now, colour revolutions,” he said.
“Any colour revolution makes the state weaker and the people poorer.”
‘It’s impossible to bear’
In a video from the courtyard where Bondarenko was detained, hundreds of people stood in a minute of silence on Friday and then chanted: “We will not forget, we will not forgive.”
“It’s impossible to bear, what they did. Everybody is crying here,” said a participant in one of the human solidarity chains in Minsk.
Ales Bialiatski, the head of the Viasna human rights centre, said men in plain-clothes who went to a Minsk courtyard to remove red and white ribbons detained Bondarenko in the yard on Wednesday evening.
They handed him over to police officers and Bondarenko was brutally beaten inside a van, Bialiatski said in a statement.
“As a result, Raman sustained a severe head injury and in grave condition was brought to the police [department]. An ambulance wasn’t called for two more hours. The doctors were unable to save Raman Bandarenka’s life,” Bialiatski said, calling for a criminal investigation to hold those responsible for Bondarenko’s death accountable.
The news outlet Nasha Niva reported that police had detained protesters in at least four towns.
A total of four people, including Bondarenko, are reported to have died since the protests began in August as the result of the crackdown on demonstrators and opposition supporters.