A total of 16 journalists were detained in the central Freedom Square on the evening of August 27, according to the human rights center Vyasna, as they prepared to cover a demonstration calling for President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s resignation and demanding new elections be carried out in a free and fair manner.
The journalists were put in a minibus to be brought to a police station for officers to check whether they had valid accreditation allowing them to work in the country, according to the Interior Ministry.
Those detained included Uladzimir Gridin, a photographer working for RFE/RL’s Belarus Service, known locally as Radio Svaboda (Radio Liberty), and journalists from TUT.BY, BelaPAN, Belsat, TASS, the Associated Press, and other media. Most of them were later released.
After the detentions, hundreds of anti-government protesters gathered on the square before marching toward Independence Square.
There, police dispersed a crowd of about 1,000 demonstrators and detained 189 people, the rights NGO Vyasna reported.
More than 10 journalists were among those detained, including three working for Radio Svaboda — Aleh Hruzdzilovich, Andrey Rabchykai, and Ales Dashchynski.
Earlier in the day, employees of the Scientific and Practical Cardiology Center held a picket to protest against the dismissal of the head of the center, Alyaksandr Mrochak. He was sacked after doctors at the institution had denounced police violence against anti-government demonstrators.
The 65-year-old Lukashenka, who has ruled Belarus for 26 years, has shown his determination to stay in power despite more than two weeks of protests against the results of the August 9 presidential election that gave the Belarusian leader a new six-year term.
The electoral results and postelection crackdown are facing growing Western condemnation, with European Union foreign ministers expected to agree sanctions this week on Belarusian officials over the disputed presidential election and crackdown against peaceful protesters.
Neighboring Russia, a historical ally that wields some influence over Minsk through financial and political levers, has warned the EU and the United States against interfering in Belarusian affairs.
Lukashenka on August 27 announced an agreement with Moscow under which he says Russia will refinance a $1 billion loan to Belarus, and said he would not allow the country’s currency to collapse amid the ongoing protests and workers’ strikes.
With the Belarusian ruble in short supply in recent days, Lukashenka told the state-run BelTA news agency: “We have a floating exchange rate. If demand is high, then the dollar or euro will be more expensive, and if demand lowers, then they will cost less. We aren’t clinging on to the [Belarusian] ruble exchange rate trying to restrain it.”.
In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin told the state-run Russian TV channel Rossia-24 on August 27 that Russia has prepared a contingent of law-enforcement officers that could be sent to Belarus “if necessary” to restore order in the event of “looting” during the ongoing postelection protests.
Russian forces won’t be used unless extremist elements in Belarus cross the line and begin acts of looting,” Putin said.
Demonstrators have faced a brutal police crackdown, with widespread evidence of beatings and torture in police custody.
Opposition candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya says at least six people have been killed in the crackdown and dozens of protesters have gone missing after being detained by authorities.
Belarusian prosecutors have questioned leading opposition figures as part of what Minsk calls a “criminal investigation” into the opposition’s recently formed Coordination Council.
Maryya Kalesnikava, a senior member of exiled opposition leader Tsikhanouskaya’s Coordination Council, was summoned to the headquarters of the Belarusian Investigative Committee for questioning on August 27.
The head of the Belarusian Constitutional Court has declared that the Coordination Council is “unconstitutional,” and two other key members of the council’s presidium have been jailed on charges of organizing unauthorized demonstrations against Lukashenka.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in Berlin after talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on August 27 that Lukashenka “must demonstrate full respect” for the fundamental rights of the Belarusian people, “including freedom of speech and the right to peaceful protest.”
Stoltenberg also refuted Lukashenka’s claim that NATO forces were being deployed on the borders of Belarus, saying it would be “unjustified” to use the NATO alliance as an excuse for further crackdowns.
“NATO has no military buildup in the region so any attempt to use that an excuse to crack down on peaceful protesters is absolutely unjustified,” Stoltenberg said, adding that it was up to the people of Belarus to decide their own future.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki tweeted that any Russian military intervention in Belarus would be “a hostile act, in breach of international law and human rights of Belarusian people, who should be free to decide their own fate.”
EU foreign ministers, meanwhile, have begun two days of talks in Berlin that include the issue of expected sanctions against Belarus over its disputed presidential election and the subsequent crackdown against peaceful protesters.
The EU has already reportedly agreed to impose sanctions on 15 to 20 individuals accused of participating in electoral fraud or repression of demonstrations following the contentious August 9 vote.
A source told the dpa news agency that the August 27-28 meeting in Berlin would seek to gain political endorsements for the proposed list of sanctioned individuals, which would allow for formal approval.
Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu told RFE/RL outside of the Berlin gathering on August 27 that the EU “needs to have a determined position” and take actions that “give a clear and strong voice” about the Belarusian political crisis.
“Estonia and Latvia have agreed to form also our national targeted sanctions list addressing these officials of the Belarusian regime who are responsible for electoral fraud or using violence against peaceful protesters,” Reinsalu said.
“The European Union needs to act, to give a clear and strong voice also about different parties, political dialogue, which should lead to new and free presidential elections” in Belarus, he said.
Elsewhere, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Belarus, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, said Belarusian police and security officers carried out “inappropriate and unlawful” actions against demonstrators at a church that faces Independence Square in Minsk on August 26.
Kondrusiewicz on August 27 called for an investigation into the activities of police, saying their conduct “does not help ease tensions” in Belarus at a time when the Catholic Church is calling for “reconciliation and dialogue” to end the “social and political conflict, which has no precedents in our country.”
Several dozen protesters had found refuge in the church on August 26, and police blocked its doors to keep them inside for about 40 minutes while authorities dispersed a crowd of more than 1,000 demonstrators on the nearby square and arrested about 50 protesters.
With reporting by Current Time, Reuters, AP, TASS, Interfax, dpa, AFP, and Tut.by