Thousands in Belarus decry president's reelection as rigged

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CORRECTING COUNTRY IN CAPTION TO BELARUS - People with old Belarusian National flag gather in a street protesting the election results in Minsk, Belarus, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. The demonstrators are contesting the official count showing President Alexander Lukashenko winning a sixth term with 80% of Sunday's vote, with crowds taking to the streets every night since to demand a recount. (AP Photo)

MINSK – Thousands of protesters rallied in Belarus’ capital and other cities for a fourth straight night Wednesday, decrying an election they say was rigged to extend the 26-year rule of the country's authoritarian leader and the crackdown on subsequent demonstrations.

In several parts of Minsk, groups of hundreds of people formed human chains. Motorists blared horns in support and, in some areas, slowed to a crawl to block police vehicles. On one avenue, people stood on balconies, clapping in an expression of support. Riot police fired rubber bullets at them.

Similar protests were held in at least five other cities, according to the Viasna rights group, to contest the official election results, which show President Alexander Lukashenko won a sixth term with 80% of Sunday’s vote and the main opposition challenger garnered 10%. Crowds have taken to the streets every night since to demand a recount.

Earlier in the day, groups of hundreds of women formed human chains in several districts of Minsk, chanting “Shame!” and calling for an end to the crackdown on the demonstrations. Hesitant to use force against all-women rallies, police dispersed them without violence.

But in recent nights, authorities have responded with a level of brutality remarkable even during Lukashenko’s rule. Police have dispersed protesters with tear gas, stun grenades, water cannons and rubber bullets and severely beat them with truncheons. Black-uniformed officers chased protesters into residential buildings and deliberately targeted journalists, beating many and breaking their cameras.

“We stand for a peaceful protest,” said Ksenia Ilyashevich, a 23-year-old IT specialist who joined other women at a Minsk protest earlier Wednesday. “We worked up the courage and came out to rally. We stand here for all.”

In three previous nights of protests, at least 6,000 people have been detained and hundreds injured, according to the official count, but even that high toll appeared to downplay the scope. Anguished relatives were besieging prisons across Belarus trying to find their missing relatives.

“Even those who were loyal saw the real face of this government during the past three days,” said 63-year-old Galina Vitushko, who stood outside a jail in Minsk, trying to find her son, a 43-year old doctor. She said that she desperately needs to give him insulin since he has diabetes.