An outcry over the brutal crackdown on protesters against the disputed presidential election in Belarus has forced the government to back down on some its measures.
Many of those detained after the more than 6,000 arrests since Sunday’s election were being released after reports of beatings and torture prompted strikes at its major state-owned enterprises and spurred further protests around the country.
Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s strongman president, was forced to deny reports that he had been overthrown. “For a start, I’m alive, I haven’t gone abroad, as some of our respected ‘insiders’ are trying to spin it,” Mr Lukashenko said, according to state news agency Belta.
Mr Lukashenko accused unknown forces of “disrupting labor collectives” and warned Belarus would lose export markets for heavy machinery if its factories did not return to work. “If people want to work, yes please, here’s a job, come and work. If someone doesn’t want to work, we won’t drag him on a lasso,” he said.
Yuri Karaev, the interior minister, said late on Thursday that everyone arrested at the protests would be freed by 6am on Friday. Mr Karaev said in an interview on state television that “as a commander I want to take responsibility myself and apologise humanely” to people who were beaten and arrested but had not taken part in the protest.
However, Alexander Barsukov, his deputy, told a crowd gathered outside the prison that “there was no abuse.”
The reports of torture against detainees prompted workers at the major state-owned factories — Mr Lukashenko’s political base — to demand new elections.
Roman Golovchenko, the prime minister, went to negotiate with striking workers at the Minsk Automobile Plant, one of its largest factories, on Friday morning.
In videos circulating on messaging app Telegram, workers raised their hands en masse when asked if they had voted for opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. The former English teacher refused to recognise the election result before fleeing to Lithuania on Tuesday after what her campaign said was pressure from Belarus’s security services.
Natalia Kochanova, chair of the upper house of parliament, said Mr Lukashenko had “heard the opinion of labourers’ collectives and ordered an inquiry”.
“The people made their choice. But everything that started happening afterwards is an unprecedented attempt to destroy what we have always taken pride in — our peaceful life — and divide society,” Ms Kochanova said. “We must stop destroying with our own hands everything we built in the years of our country’s independence.”
Several people who were jailed at a notorious detention facility on Okrestina street in Minsk’s south-western outskirts told the Financial Times that police and guards repeatedly beat them with rubber batons, crowded dozens of them into small cells without adequate food and water, refused to let them use the toilet, and threatened to rape them.
The violence appeared to be pre-planned in an attempt to scare off protesters. Mr Lukashenko vowed before the vote to “remind” protesters of a massacre in Uzbekistan in 2005, where police killed hundreds of peaceful demonstrators in the city of Andijan. State TV regularly showed footage of riot police training to confront protesters, then dragging several young people in handcuffs with obvious bruises and forcing them to promise “not to do a revolution”.
Yaroslav, a protester who spent several nights in the Okrestina jail, told the FT that guards shouted “you wanted regime change and democracy? Here you go!” as they beat detainees. Before releasing them, guards forced detainees to lie on the ground, beat their arms and legs with batons, then made them do 100 squats. Those who failed to comply were beaten again.