Belarus opposition leader wants solidarity in face of growing crackdown

The leader of the Belarusian opposition told protesters in a tent camp in the center of Minsk early Thursday that they had defied expectations by maintaining their vigil as long as they have, amid an escalating campaign of arrests and harassment.

About 200 people occupied part of a freezing downtown square overnight, keeping a toehold for the opposition between rallies that have brought out thousands of people each night this week to protest the disputed re-election of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Opposition presidential candidate Alexander Milinkevich said that although the demonstrations have been comparatively small numerically and have not succeeded in achieving their demand of new elections, they represented a big step forward.

"Nobody had expected what has happened here," he told the tent camp residents entering the fourth-day of a round-the-clock vigil.

Police have not moved to disperse the protesters, but they have picked up many would-be participants and supporters. The human rights center Vyasna said that 150 people have been detained in connection with the protests against the election, some of them released but others tried and sentenced usually to a week or two behind bars.

"We must defend one another," Milinkevich told a crowd of about 4,000 in Oktyabrskaya Square on Wednesday night.

"The authorities are violating the law, they have organized large-scale repression," Milinkevich said. "In these conditions, we are trying to do everything we can to achieve the truth."

He said he was concerned that people are being fired from their jobs or expelled from universities for opposing the government.

Andrei Dynko, the editor of an independent newspaper who was detained Tuesday on the way to the square, was sentenced to 10 days in jail Wednesday for swearing. Vadim Alexandrovich, editor of the paper Belarus i Rynok, received the same sentence on the same charge.

Showing bruises on his face and chest, protester Mikhail Avdeyev said three riot police beat him up early Wednesday when he left the tent camp to buy cigarettes.

The persistent protest is unprecedented in this former Soviet nation where Lukashenko has been silencing dissent since his first election in 1994, but opposition leaders acknowledge the crowd in a corner of the square is not big enough to force a new election.

Gearing up for a major test of strength, Milinkevich emphasized his call for protesters to come out in force on Saturday, the anniversary of the declaration of the first, short-lived independent Belarusian republic in 1918.

The nightly rallies attract 2,000 to 7,000 people fewer than the 10,000 who came out on election night and dwindle as night deepens, leaving a few hundred at the tent camp.

According to the preliminary official vote count, Lukashenko won a new five-year term with nearly 83 percent to Milinkevich's 6 percent. Final results were to be announced on Thursday.

Western governments and organizations have denounced the election as undemocratic. Diplomats from 11 EU countries were called to the Foreign Ministry on Wednesday to hear criticism of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observer team's negative assessment of the vote, ministry spokesman Andrei Popov said.

The monitors' conclusions "distort reality," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement that called the election "open and democratic" and called the OSCE's election monitoring division "an instrument for the delivery of prejudiced verdicts" dictated by some of its members.

Lukashenko is popular with many Belarusians who credit him with providing economic and political stability. State-run media have portrayed the protesters as a small group of deceived young people whose leaders are in the pay of Western governments seeking to control Belarus , reports the AP.


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