MINSK: Hundreds of people in Belarus were being released from jail on Friday after they were detained in a post-election crackdown, with many giving harrowing accounts of beatings and torture.
In a surprise move after five days of protests over strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko’s disputed election win, officials said 1,000 detainees would be set free and the interior minister apologised to bystanders injured in the unrest.
Detainees emerging Friday from a detention centre in the capital Minsk told AFP they had been beaten and deprived of food, water, sleep and medical care.
“They burned my hands with cigarettes,” said Maxim Dovzhenko, 25, who insisted he had been detained even though he was not taking part in protests.
“They hit me on the head, I am not feeling well, my head is spinning,” he said before being taken to hospital.
Mikhail Chernenkov, a 43-year-old entrepreneur, said he was given electric shocks and beaten with sticks in a police station, showing AFP his bruised buttocks.
“This is torture,” he said, adding that like many others he was forced to sleep outside because cells were overcrowded. He also said he did not take part in the protests.
Hundreds of friends and relatives were waiting outside the detention centre, where volunteers were handing out food and blankets.
Police say they have detained more than 6,700 people since the protests erupted after Sunday’s election, which Lukashenko claims to have won with 80% of the vote.
– Human chains –
Lukashenko’s opponents accuse him of rigging the election to defeat his main rival, popular opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who has left the country for neighbouring Lithuania.
Thousands have protested on the streets of Minsk and other cities demanding 65-year-old Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet country with an iron grip since 1994, step down.
Police have used rubber bullets, stun grenades and in at least one case live rounds to disperse the crowds, with hundreds injured.
Officials have confirmed two deaths in the unrest, including one man who died during a demonstration in Minsk and another who died in custody after being arrested in the southeastern city of Gomel.
European countries have condemned the crackdown and the European Union was set to discuss possible sanctions on Friday.
In a dramatic show of defiance on Thursday, thousands of people formed human chains and marched in Minsk, many wearing white and holding flowers and balloons, to protest against police brutality.
Similar human chains formed in half a dozen other cities.
Senate Speaker Natalya Kochanova then appeared on state television to say that Lukashenko had ordered officials to review detentions and that 1,000 people taken into custody were being released.
Interior Minister Yury Karayev also appeared and made a rare show of contrition for the authoritarian regime.
“I apologise for the injuries of random people at protests who got caught in the middle,” he said.
– ‘Campaign of torture’ –
In a statement, Amnesty International condemned “a campaign of widespread torture and other ill-treatment by the Belarusian authorities who are intent on crushing peaceful protests by any means.”
On Thursday, demonstrators held placards reading “Change!” and “No violence” and wore white bracelets, one of the symbols of the opposition movement.
“We want to show that we, the women of our country, are against violence,” said Yekaterina, a 38-year-old hairdresser wearing a white sweater and jacket and holding a bunch of white flowers.
Large groups of workers at several major factories staged walk-outs.
Russia’s foreign ministry on Thursday claimed the protests showed “clear attempts at outside interference”.
Russia is a key ally of Belarus and President Vladimir Putin was among the first foreign leaders to congratulate Lukashenko after the election.
Lukashenko has dismissed the demonstrators as foreign-controlled “sheep” and “people with a criminal past who are now unemployed”.
The protest movement arose in support of Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old political novice who ran for president after potential opposition candidates including her husband were jailed.
The official results gave her 10 percent of the vote, but Tikhanovskaya said the election was rigged and claimed victory, demanding that Lukashenko hand over power.
She left for neighbouring Lithuania on Tuesday as allies said she came under official pressure.