Protesters in Belarus were reeling on Monday after a brutal crackdown in the wake of elections which officials said gave a landslide victory to strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko.
Activists said at least one person had died and scores more were injured when protests erupted after exit polls on Sunday night pointed to a win for Mr Lukashenko in a poll which international observers had not been allowed to monitor.
On Monday Belarus’s electoral commission said Mr Lukashenko had won 80.2 per cent of the vote, while his challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, whose rallies have drawn huge crowds in recent weeks, had won just 9.9 per cent.
Ms Tikhanovskaya’s campaign refused to recognise the results and claimed some polling stations that had released their counts to the public showed her with “70-80 per cent” of the vote.
Mr Lukashenko, a former collective-farm manager, has ruled Belarus, a former Soviet state wedged between the EU and Russia, for 26 years and has been dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” for his relentless suppression of dissent.
Furious clashes took place in the capital Minsk, where riot police clad in body-armour and armed with batons, flash grenades, tear gas and water cannons were involved in bloody confrontations with thousands of protesters demanding that Mr Lukashenko step down.
Ivan Noskevich, head of Belarus’s investigative committee, said it had launched an investigation into “mass disturbances” and “violence” against the police, which carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.
Viasna, a human rights group, said that one man had died after suffering severe head injuries from a police vehicle that drove into a crowd of people, and that scores of wounded had been taken to hospitals in the capital city.
“All responsibility for the tragic events of last night lies with the interior ministry and the security council of Belarus,” said Valentin Stefanovich, an activist from Viasna. Belarus’ interior ministry denied reports of the death.
The news agency AP said that one of its journalists had been beaten by police and treated in hospital, as did Russian independent news site Meduza.
There were also clashes between riot police and protesters in numerous other cities, including Brest, Vitebsk, and Grodno. In some, police downed their shields and retreated.
Internet outages were reported across Belarus on Sunday, and continued on Monday. Activists said that further protests were planned for Monday evening.
There were widespread reports of electoral irregularities. A video from a polling station widely circulated on social media appeared to show an official using a ladder to climb out of a second-storey window with bags of what were assumed to be ballot papers.
Officials said that the woman got stuck in the room when the door in the room refused to open.
In the run-up to Sunday’s election two of Mr Lukashenko’s main opponents were jailed, while a third fled the country after threats to his family. On the eve of the vote, several of Ms Tikhanovskaya’s campaign team were detained.
Yet despite the crackdown, Mr Lukashenko faced an unexpectedly tough challenge from Ms Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old former teacher and wife of Sergei Tikhanovsky, a blogger and critic of Mr Lukashenko, who was jailed in May.
Allowed to run after her husband was barred, Ms Tikhanovskaya drew huge crowds at her rallies, and tapped into widespread frustration at Belarus’s economic stagnation, as well as anger at Mr Lukashenko’s refusal to introduce any form of social distancing to fight coronavirus.
Mr Lukashenko claimed his opponents were under the control of foreign “puppetmasters” seeking to overthrow him. Belarus’s KGB arrested 33 Russian mercenaries last week and charged them with working alongside Mr Tikhanovsky to “destabilise the situation”.
Nonetheless, Russian president Vladimir Putin congratulated Mr Lukashenko on his victory, saying he expected Belarus to “cultivate integration processes” and deepen “military and political ties” with Moscow.
Although Mr Lukashenko was also congratulated by Xi Jinping, China’s autocratic leader, Volodymyr Zelensky, president of neighbouring Ukraine, said it was “clear that not everyone agrees with the preliminary election results” and called on the authorities to show restraint.