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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mass Protests Turn Violent in Minsk

Police in riot gear clashed violently with thousands of anti-government protesters this weekend in Belarus, leading to the arrests of at least 92 people, including a Russian State Duma deputy.

On Monday, Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko ordered organizers of the protest to be found and punished, and a top official in his administration accused Western governments of financing the protesters.

Sunday's protest, organized by a coalition of anti-Lukashenko groups ranging from social democrats to nationalists, attracted an estimated 20,000 people - the biggest turnout for any demonstration since 1996.

Authorities denied organizers of the "Freedom March" permission to hold their demonstration in the center of Minsk, instead banishing them to one far-removed square. While the rally began in the square, protesters shortly set off for the president's residence.

The clash occurred about 1 kilometer from the president's palace, Russia's NTV television reported. The station showed footage of protesters hurling rocks and charging a line of riot police, who beat them with rubber batons.

Russian media and witnesses said the police did not simply block off the palace, but surrounded the protesters in what seemed an attempt to provoke a confrontation. NTV showed people running into a river to escape.

"It's very hard to assess who provoked what. Yes, they had no permission to march, but they do have the right to assembly," said Malcolm Hawkes, a Belarus expert with Human Rights Watch.

Belarussian Interior Ministry spokesman Colonel Sergei Kuzin said 53 police officers were injured in the clashes, The Associated Press reported. There were no figures on the number of injured demonstrators.

"The word from activists on the street is that many people who need medical attention are too afraid to go to the hospital because they could be arrested there," Hawkes said.

State television quoted Lukashenko as ordering security forces "to find the concrete organizers of and active participants in the mass disorder that threatened the lives of dozens of people," Reuters reported.

Minsk officials said 92 protesters had been arrested, but opposition leaders put the figure much higher. Oleg Bebenin, spokesman for the pro-democracy group Charter 97, said the Interior Ministry's figure did not include the high number of minors who were detained but released later on Sunday. He put the total number of detentions between 250 and 300.

AP quoted Kuzin as saying that 62 people were to be tried Monday in connection with the march.

Bebenin said Charter 97 member Lyudmila Gryaznova, a deputy in the parliament that Lukashenko disbanded in 1996, had been arrested and released at 2 a.m. Monday. Later in the day, she was tried and fined 300 million Belarussian rubles ($839) for organizing and participating in an unsanctioned march.

The march encompassed several ideologies. While some people were there to protest the recent disappearances of key opposition figures and the closings of newspapers, others were more concerned about the country's impending union with Russia, the draft of which was published this month. Others may have turned out to protest worsening economic conditions, observers said.

"This was a protest against the policy of the authorities, which is aimed at liquidating Belarus," said Yury Khodyko, a leader of the Belarussian Popular Front, or BNF, the largest opposition group. "We also demanded guarantees of human rights and elementary freedoms, like citizens of other countries have." Khodyko made his comments at a news conference in Minsk, which was shown on NTV.

Russian Duma Deputy Olga Beklemishcheva, of the liberal Yabloko faction, was detained by police in Minsk for about two hours Sunday night.

At a hastily called news conference in Moscow on Monday, Beklemishcheva said she had been in Minsk as an observer, not as a participant of the protest, and was arrested at the headquarters of the Belarussian Social Democratic Party. Police reportedly broke down the door of the headquarters.

She said she had gone to Minsk on her own initiative to investigate conditions there in light of the impending union between the two countries.

"I look at this as an insult toward Russia," she said. "What happened to me underlines the fact that Mr. Lukashenko counts us as his allies to such an extent that he's ready to deal with us just as boorishly as with his own unlucky people."

Beklemishcheva said she was released - just in time to catch her train back to Moscow - once she managed to inform senior officers of her status.

Beklemishcheva joined human rights organizations in calling for a Russian response to events in Belarus. Russia is considered the only country with any influence with Lukashenko, yet remains conspicuously silent after reported human rights violations in Belarus.

"It's time to break this silence," she said. "Otherwise Belarussian people will think we are all like this."

In contrast to Russia's silence, Ukraine publicly reprimanded Belarus for its treatment of the protesters.

"Everybody has a right to have his own opinion and everybody has a right to hold peaceful demonstrations,'' the AP quoted Ukraine's Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk as saying. "The life of the people who are using this right in Belarus does not correspond to international norms.''

Nikolai Statkevich, leader of the Social Democrats, was detained along with Beklemishcheva, who said he is being charged with organizing a mass disruption and faces three to six years in prison. Statkevich, still in detention, announced a hunger strike Monday, Interfax reported.

Statkevich was shown on NTV trying to break up fights between police and protesters. Beklemishcheva said she thought he would have succeeded in calming tempers if police had given him a chance to address the marchers.

NTV quoted Mikhail Myasnikovich, head of the presidential administration, as saying "Western governments and criminal structures" had spent at least $100,000 financing Sunday's events.

He said opposition forces orchestrated the scene in order to generate favorable news coverage in other countries. "I don't rule out that on the part of Western politicians there will again be a skewed approach and evaluation of yesterday's events," he said. The violence occurred almost exactly a month after Viktor Gonchar, acting speaker of the dissolved Supreme Soviet, disappeared with his friend Anatoly Krasovsky after leaving a bathhouse. Human rights organizations suspect the Belarussian KGB is behind their disappearance, as well as those of two other Lukashenko opponents.

Shortly after Gonchar went missing, Belarus' biggest independent newspaper, Naviny, was slapped with a lawsuit from the secretary of the Security Council for staining his honor with an article that reported on his alleged real estate holdings. A Minsk court ordered the newspaper and the author of the article to pay more than $46,000 in damages.

On Oct. 4, the government canceled the registration of nine independent newspapers, including Nasha Svaboda, the renamed version of Naviny.

Even as this crackdown is occurring, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has been attempting to mediate negotiations between Lukashenko and the opposition in order to pave the way for free and fair parliamentary elections next year.

"It's difficult in conditions of disappearances and closings of newspapers to continue negotiations," an OSCE representative said by telephone from Minsk.

But Hawkes of Human Rights Watch suggested the OSCE needed to take a firmer line with Lukashenko.

"I think it [the government] is paving the way to railroad through the parliamentary election the results that it wants," Hawkes said. "The opposition is being systematically neutralized."

At Sunday's march, BNF leader Vintsuk Vyachyorka said the government was not negotiating in good faith.

"We are for negotiations, we're for a peaceful way out of the political crisis, but we expected that the regime would release political prisoners, that it will stop the repression against the independent press, that something will be made clear about the disappeared people, that the criminal cases against political opponents of the regime be stopped. This didn't happen," Vyachyorka told NTV as he marched. "Lukashenko is laughing at everybody. He is still sure that he cannot be punished in this country."

Vyachyorka was in hiding Monday, said Alexei Yanukevich of BNF, adding that police were searching the party's office as he spoke.