MOSCOW – They were unpunished by reports of torture, live ammunition and the threat of arrest.
Tens of thousands of factory workers, women squeezing white flowers and balloons and young protesters flooded the streets of cities in Belarus, including Minsk, the capital, for the fifth straight day on Friday.
“Stay,” they shouted, their calls aimed at longtime President Alexander Lukashenko, who is facing his biggest challenge since taking power 26 years ago after the fall of the Soviet Union. He is known as the “last dictator” of Europe.
Demonstrations erupted Sunday night as polls closed in Belarus̵7; presidential election when Lukashenko ousted to declare victory with 80 per cent of the vote against opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
Workers at state-owned manufacturing companies began joining the protest on Thursday, and labor strikes demanding Lukashenko step down began to spread across the country, despite reports of mass arrests and beatings by security forces. At least one demonstrator was killed.
They were joined by thousands of female protesters who formed “chains of solidarity” and many wore white T-shirts, ribbons and bracelets, to represent peace, although others wore a red ribbon, echoing the old Belarusian flag.
As the crowd in Minsk hugged the Parliament building in Independence Square, at least two poisoned security officers lowered their rebellion shields, causing women to run forward to hug them and offer flowers.
Seemingly entrenched from the support base, Tikhanovskaya – who fled to neighboring Lithuania on Monday after saying her family was threatened – reappeared on Friday.
Calling for an end to the violence, for mayors across the country to join the protesters and for the state to enter into a dialogue, Tikhanovskaya, a former England teacher, said in a YouTube video message that her compatriots its “no longer want to live with the old authorities.”
Tsikhanouskaya, who emerged from obscurity a few weeks ago to replace her husband in the election campaign after being jailed, added that “most of the country” did not believe Lukashenko had won the election.
“We have always said that we should defend our elections using only legal, non-violent means, but the authorities have turned peaceful public protests into a bloodbath,” she said. “The situation is critical.”
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In a separate post on the Telegram messaging app, she called for the establishment of a co-ordinating committee of labor leaders, political figures and opposition candidates to begin work for a peaceful transition of power.
“We are ready for dialogue with the authorities,” the post said. “Given what is happening across the country, and the need to take urgent measures to restore the rule of law in Belarus, I – Svetlana Tikhanovskaya – start setting up a coordinating council to ensure a transfer of power.”
Her comments came as allegations of torture and beatings by security forces flooded social media and spread on the internet – further exacerbating public anger at the government.
Photos posted online and verified by NBC News have also shown the detainee at a police station in Minsk scattered across a courtyard.
Reports from protesters released by detention centers have details of torture and humiliation. Other videos and audio clips shared on social media have featured audible screams of detainees apparently being tortured by authorities.
In a video shared by the independent Mediazona exit, Minsk residents stood outside one of these detention centers chanting “hanging there” for those being held inside.
Another video, published on TikTok, showed raped and bruised protesters being treated by doctors when they were released from a detention center on Friday.
Authorities in the country – which borders Russia, Poland and Ukraine and has a population of about 9.5 million – said on Thursday they had arrested about 7,000 people across the country, although they later released about 1,000.
Natalya Kochanova, head of the upper house of Belarus’ parliament, said on Friday that the release was authorized by Lukashenko after considering the demands of labor groups, which are now protesting against him. Kochanova added that Lukashenko promised to investigate the facts behind the arrests.
The released were “under obligation not to participate in unauthorized activities, and the juveniles were handed over to their parents,” Kochanova said. “We do not need unrest. We do not need war.”
Lukashenko, 65, who has claimed a foreign-backed plot to destabilize Belarus and fired demonstrators as criminals and the unemployed, later turned to state-owned industry workers directly.
“I am still alive and I have not fled the country, as some of our ‘informed’ compatriots are pleading that the president has fled the country and is now abroad,” said Lukashenko, who once ran a Soviet collective farm.
Warning that their strikes would destroy Belarus’ economy, he added: “Today you do not produce 10 tractors, they do not go to market and tomorrow the Germans will come with the Americans. The Russians will bring their equipment.”
His words seemed to have little effect, as more and more workers joined the national strike and took to the streets.
Matthew Bodner reported from Moscow and Matthew Mulligan from London.