Thousands of demonstrators turned out in the Belarusian capital Minsk on Friday to mourn the death of a protester who was pronounced dead the day after police arrested him.
Lining the capital’s main thoroughfares, the protesters formed human chains, while dozens more laid flowers at the site where Roman Bondarenko, a 31-year-old former soldier, was arrested on Wednesday.
Tens of thousands have taken part in weekly protests since strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power for more than two decades, won a landslide victory in a disputed presidential election in August.
Bondarenko died in Minsk after police arrested him following a dispute in a city square that has become a regular meeting place for the opposition.
Witnesses said unrest erupted between protesters hanging up red-and-white ribbons — the colors of the opposition — and plainclothes police who were removing them.
Bondarenko was pronounced dead on Thursday after suffering brain damage, triggering a wave of outrage among the Belarusian opposition, who believe Lukashenko’s security forces are ultimately responsible.
Lukashenko told reporters Friday that he had contacted investigators and the prosecutor general, telling them to conduct the probe “honestly and objectively”.
Earlier on Friday, the widow of Alexander Taraikovsky, a 34-year-old protester who died during a rally in August, told AFP that the probe into Taraikovsky’s death had been suspended.
“This was predictable. I was sure that a criminal case would not be opened,” Yelena German said.
A minute’s silence
Police initially said that Taraikovsky was killed by an explosive device that he was holding, but video footage showed that no explosion took place.
The interior ministry later said it was possible Taraikovsky was shot with a “non-lethal” weapon.
Meanwhile, exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya Thursday called for a minute’s silence to take place at noon on Friday “in every neighborhood of every city”.
“Let’s do it for the sake of a man who was killed because he wanted to live in a free country,” she said on her Telegram channel.
In another statement, Tikhanovskaya said a “popular tribunal” would be set up to gather “evidence of the regime’s crimes” and officials helping to “capture” Lukashenko would be granted amnesty.
Tikhanovskaya, 38, believes she was the true winner of the presidential polls and has gained the support of Western leaders who have refused to recognize the election results.
‘Outrageous and shameful’
The European Union condemned Bondarenko’s death on Friday, warning that it could impose further sanctions on targets in Belarus.
“This is an outrageous and shameful result of the actions by the Belarusian authorities,” the EU said.
The EU statement noted that Belarus authorities are guilty of direct violence against the population and of creating an environment in which such “lawless, violent acts can take place.”
Last week, the EU added Lukashenko, his eldest son Viktor and thirteen other officials to a sanctions list for their role in the crackdown.
Huge crowds gathered on Thursday to pay tribute to Bondarenko at what the opposition has dubbed the “Square of Change” after residents resisted attempts by security forces to paint over anti-government murals.
Hundreds also gathered there on Friday in silence, adding flowers and candles to the makeshift memorial to Bondarenko.
Elsewhere around the capital, cars honked as they passed the human chains, while demonstrators made “V” signs for victory symbols with their hands.
Similar demonstrations reportedly took place around the country.
Belarus’s Investigative Committee, a body charged with probing major crimes, said in a statement on Friday that when police arrived at the square on Wednesday a 31-year-old Minsk resident had “bodily injuries and signs of alcoholic intoxication”.
The statement added that the man was taken to a police station and after his condition worsened to a hospital, where he was confirmed to have alcohol in his system.
A doctor speaking on condition of anonymity to the independent Belarusian news site Tut by said on Friday that medical staff had found no alcohol in Bondarenko’s system.
“We found nothing at all,” the doctor said.
Police have detained thousands of demonstrators who have reported torture and abuse in custody, prompting international condemnation and Western sanctions.