Belarusian authorities have released arrested demonstrators after issuing a rare public apology in an effort to quell nationwide street protests that pose the biggest challenge yet to President Alexander Lukashenko’s 26-year rule.
Their release came on Friday, hours before a meeting of European Union foreign ministers which is due to discuss possible new sanctions on the Belarusian leadership after its harsh crackdown on post-election protests.
Hundreds of friends and relatives, many of them in tears, stood outside a detention centre in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, in the early hours of Friday morning.
They carried food, water and blankets which they gave to people as they were released.
Some of the freed protesters had bruises and described mistreatment, including being packed in overcrowded cells.
Deputy Interior Minister Alexander Barsukov denied the prisoners were abused and said all of those arrested would be freed by the morning.
“They arrested everyone, beat everyone, girls, guys, children, who were 15, 14, 13 years old. There was a grandfather who was about 70 with us,” said Sergei, one of those freed, who did not give his surname.
At least two protesters died and about 6,700 were arrested this week in the crackdown, which followed a landslide Lukashenko re-election win which protesters said was false because the ballot had been massively rigged.
A former Soviet collective farm manager, the 65-year-old Lukashenko has faced increasing anger over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic – which he dismissed as a “psychosis” – a sluggish economy and human rights.
A new round of protests began on Friday morning as people formed human chains in Minsk. Local media reported more discontent among workers at some big state-run companies which are the pride of Lukashenko’s Soviet-style economic model.
Lukashenko, alleging a foreign-backed plot to destabilise the country, has dismissed the demonstrators as criminals and unemployed.
But another presidential ally, Natalya Kochanova, the head of the national state council, said on Thursday that Lukashenko had ordered an urgent review into the arrests.
“We don’t fight, we don’t need war,” she said.
Yuri Karayev, the interior affairs minister, apologised for what he said were injuries sustained by random people at the hands of the police.