Thousands of women marched through the capital of Belarus calling for the resignation of President Alexander Lukashenko, and university students demonstrated against the detention of classmates during the wave of protests gripping the country.
For the first time in the protests, supporters of LGBTQ rights appeared with rainbow flags in the women’s march in Minsk on Saturday, an indication that opponents of Lukashenko are becoming bolder on the fourth weekend of protests since his disputed re-election.
“LGBT people are calling for freedom. We are tired of living in a dictatorship where we simply didn’t exist,” Anna Bredova, one of the rainbow flag bearers, told The Associated Press news agency by phone.
Although same-sex activity was legalised in Belarus in 1994, stigmatisation of it is strong. Authorities have not allowed any LGBTQ organisation legal registry.
About 5,000 women took part in the march, according to the human rights organisation Viasna. Police followed the protest, but no detentions were reported.
Marches and demonstrations by women have become a frequent feature of the protests, which broke out on August 9 after a disputed election in which Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, was officially tallied with an 80 percent landslide victory.
Earlier on Saturday, hundreds of students formed human chains to demonstrate against the detention of students at the State Linguistics University.
Masked security agents dragged students off the streets and bundled them into vans, with up to 30 people detained for taking part in the protests, Russian news agency TASS quoted the Minsk police as saying.
Protests took place after some previous elections that Lukashenko won with lopsided margins, but this year’s have been by far the largest and longest-lasting. Sunday protests have been especially large, bringing crowds estimated at more than 100,000 people.
Meanwhile, Belarusian opposition activist Olga Kovalkova arrived in the Polish capital Warsaw on Saturday, saying she had been forced by the authorities to leave Belarus.
Kovalkova, a senior figure in the Belarusian opposition Coordination Council, was sentenced to 10 days in jail on August 25.
She said she was taken from prison to the border, where she entered Poland at the Kuznica-Bruzgi border crossing before travelling to Warsaw.
“Representatives of the militia and the interior ministry of Belarus came to me and said that if I did not agree to leave, I would face long arrest,” she told a news conference on Saturday.
Kovalkova arrived in Poland on the same day that Polish authorities confirmed Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya will visit Warsaw on Wednesday, where she will meet Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.
Tikhanovskaya, Lukashenko’s main challenger in the election, fled to Lithuania the day after the vote.
On Friday, she addressed the United Nations Security Council via video link, asking it to “stop blatant human rights violations and cynical disregard for human dignity right in the middle of Europe“.
She accused Lukashenko of stealing the election and asked the UN to condemn the crackdown on protesters, send a monitoring mission to Belarus, and call a special session of its Human Rights Council to discuss the situation in the country.
Lukashenko has denied accusations by the opposition and Western countries that the vote was rigged and has resisted demands to step down.
Human rights experts from the UN have confirmed receiving reports of hundreds of cases of torture, beatings, and mistreatment of Belarusian protesters by police.
“All these activities will not stop me, I will continue to act politically and I intend to return to Belarus to continue my activities,” Kovalkova said.