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Belarus capital scene of protests for 9th straight week, as more than 100,000 march against leader

More than 100,000 people marched in the Belarus capital on Sunday, the ninth straight week protests have taken place against the country’s authoritarian leader, who won his sixth term in office in an election widely seen as rigged.

The demonstrators in MInsk demanded the resignation of President Alexander Lukashenko and freedom for political prisoners.

Police used water cannons in an attempt to disperse the crowds, but the protesters remained undeterred. 

One video from the rally showed a group of protesters approaching a water cannon vehicle, opening a hatch on its side and removing pieces from inside the vehicle. Media reports say the water cannon malfunctioned after that and drove away. 

The Viasna Human Rights Centre said that about 120,000 people took part in the rally on Sunday. 

A campaign of ‘intimidation and persecution’

Mass protests have rocked Belarus since the Aug. 9 presidential election, with the largest rallies taking place on Sundays and drawing up to 200,000 people. The unprecedented wave of unrest was triggered by the results of the election that handed Lukashenko, who has run Belarus with an iron fist for 26 years, a crushing victory with 80 per cent of the vote.

His main challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, received only 10 per cent. She and her supporters refused to recognize the results as valid, saying the outcome of the vote was manipulated. 

In the first days after the vote, Belarusian authorities cracked down brutally on the protesters as police detained thousands and injured scores with truncheons, rubber bullets and stun grenades. 

The government has since scaled down the violence but kept the pressure on, detaining hundreds of protesters and prosecuting top activists. Many prominent members of the Co-ordination Council, formed by the opposition to push for a transition of power, have either been arrested or forced to leave the country.

More than 10,000 people have been detained since the election, and at least 244 people have been implicated in criminal cases on various charges related to the protests, Viasna Human Rights Centre leader Ales Bialiatski told The Associated Press. More than 70 people have been declared political prisoners. 

On Sunday, dozens of people were detained in Minsk and other cities. Viasna released a list of detained protesters on its website that by Sunday evening contained more than 160 names. 

Police use a water cannon against demonstrators during a rally in Minsk on Sunday, but the protesters remained undeterred. The Viasna Human Rights Centre said that about 120,000 people took part in the rally on Sunday. (The Associated Press)

“A campaign of intimidation and persecution, unprecedented for Europe, has been launched in Belarus against peaceful citizens who want one thing: free elections,” Bialiatski said. 

According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, 11 Belarusian reporters were detained on Sunday in several cities. Last week, the country’s Foreign Ministry rescinded the accreditation of all journalists working for foreign news outlets and said they must apply for new credentials.

Tikhanovskaya, who entered the presidential race to run instead of her husband, Siarhei, a popular opposition blogger jailed in May, issued a statement on Sunday supporting the protest and demands to free political prisoners. 

Let the whole world see: Belarusians want to live in freedom, not in prison.– Svetlana Tikhanovskaya

She herself was forced to leave Belarus in fear for her safety and that of her children and is currently in exile in Lithuania. 

“These are the people who, like Siarhei Tsikhanouski, haven’t seen their family and children for several months. These are the people who suffered for their convictions, and are still suffering. Our goal is to free them. So I support everyone who takes to the streets in their city today,” Tikhanovskaya said.

 “Let the whole world see: Belarusians want to live in freedom, not in prison.” 

Ukraine extends temporary stay for IT workers

Ukraine’s president has signed a decree simplifying regulations for IT workers from Belarus who are willing to relocate to the neighbouring country amid mass protests and a continuing crackdown on demonstrators and opposition activists in Belarus, officials said Sunday.

The new decree signed by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy orders the government to extend the allowed temporary stay for Belarusian IT specialists and their families to 180 days from 90 and to grant them residence permits within three days. It also orders authorities to make it easier to issue work permits and register as a taxpayer. 

The document will “help boost the investment potential of Ukraine and attract highly qualified IT specialists and innovators,” the president’s office said.

Several dozen Belarusian IT workers have relocated to Ukraine in recent weeks amid the crackdown on protesters and activists who demand the resignation of Lukashenko.

Lukashenko is shown delivering a speech during his inauguration ceremony at the Palace of the Independence in Minsk on Sept. 23. The authoritarian leader assumed his sixth term of office in August. (Maxim Guchek, BelTA/Pool Photo via The Associated Press)

IT is currently the fastest-growing sector of the Belarusian economy. It accounts for six per cent of the the country’s GDP.

Some IT workers who have supported the protests have been jailed. Others have joined the so-called Cyber Partisan group that attacks government websites and last month leaked personal data of more than 1,000 police officers allegedly involved in crackdowns on peaceful protesters. 

Several days after the disputed election, Belarusian IT specialists released a collective letter, warning the authorities that continuing repression could trigger a “mass drain of specialists” who will be relocating abroad.

“There is a risk of erasing all achievements in the field of high technologies in a short time,” the letter said.

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