MINSK, BELARUS – Accounts of beatings of protesters and mass detentions mounted in Belarus on Thursday as embattled President Aleksandr Lukashenko deployed brute force to cling to power.
Widespread protests against Lukashenko, an authoritarian who has ruled for 26 years, have gripped the country since he claimed victory Sunday in a presidential election that his opponents and international governments widely considered fraudulent.
The protests were initially largely peaceful, but riot police officers and military forces responded with stun grenades and rubber bullets, and could be seen pummeling unarmed protesters with their boots and batons. Dozens of journalists were among the thousands detained.
Still, protests continued in Minsk, the capital, and across the country on Thursday.
Footage circulating on social media showed workers walking off the job at the BelAZ truck factory in Zhodzina, a crown jewel of Belarusian industry, chanting the protest movement's message to Lukashenko — "Leave!"
Thousands of people, mostly women in white shirts, came to the city's main avenue, waving flowers to protest police violence. "Flowers are better than bullets," one poster said.
The scene outside a pretrial detention center in Minsk was one of desperation and grief. Hundreds of people gathered, as they had for much of the week, looking for loved ones.
People released from the jail said that they had not been fed and had to take turns to sleep or even sit. They were not allowed access to lawyers and had no way to tell their relatives where they were. At night, they said, they heard the sounds of beatings.
"The walls were thick, but we could still hear screams," said Daria Andreyanova, 28, an actress.
She showed a piece of toilet paper with holes in it, with the number of holes on each line representing a phone number that a person being released would call to pass along word about a cellmate still in prison.
Aleksandra Yurova, 31, who was detained Sunday, described her cell as a room of about 90 square feet with a table in the middle and a toilet that did not flush. There was only one bottle of water to be refilled and used by everyone in the cell. "We had 18 people in a cell designed for just four," she said. "I don't want to live here anymore."
She said she was released after one night, most likely because she has a small child. Her partner was also detained, and she had not heard from him.
More than 1,500 people recently detained have gone missing, according to a list updated by volunteers.
Foreign journalists released from detention described scenes of systematic beatings and abuse. The Russian independent news website Znak.com published an account by journalist Nikita Telizhenko, who said he had spent 16 hours detained with scores of others who were forced to lie face-down in pools of blood, with some detainees at times lying on top of one another.
"Blows, screams, cries could be heard from everywhere," Telizhenko said. "I had the sense that some of those detained had broken bones — hands, legs, spines — because with the tiniest bit of movement they shouted in pain."
Other correspondents also published harrowing accounts — noting that their status as foreigners and journalists had probably spared them the worst abuse. Stanislav Ivashkevich, a correspondent for the Belarus-focused television channel Belsat, which is based in Poland, described being detained in a three-person cell with 12 others.
"Over the course of two days we were given one loaf of bread for the whole cell," he wrote. "At one point we were taken out and forced to run a gantlet of rubber batons."