More than 1,000 people were arrested during anti-government protests in Belarus, as demonstrators took to the streets after the death of an opposition activist.
Protesters in Minsk chanted “I’m going out,” the last known words of artist and military veteran Roman Bondarenko, who died on Thursday after what opposition supporters said was a beating by plainclothes security officers. The government in Belarus denies responsibility for the 31-year-old’s death.
Human rights group Viasna, which supplied the arrests figure, said tens of thousands of people protested across Belarus in a continued show of opposition to August’s disputed presidential election. The Belarusian Association of Journalists said 23 journalists were arrested covering the protests on Sunday.
Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory in August but the opposition, EU, and US says the election was rigged. Lukashenko, backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, has ruled Belarus for 26 years, and has been described as Europe’s last dictator.
Principal opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya says she earned a clear majority of votes in the election, but has been living in exile in Lithuania since the summer.
In a message posted on Telegram, Tikhanovskaya paid tribute to Bondarenko.
"He was an innocent victim of an inhumane system that considers people's lives to be the cost of power," she said. "We all understand that any peaceful person could have ended up in his place."
"Like millions of Belarusians, I sympathise with Roman's family. We will not forgive this murder. We will write the name of Roman in the history of the new Belarus as the name of a hero."
Protesters say that Bondarenko was beaten after a verbal confrontation with masked men who attempted to remove protest flags and ribbons in his neighbourhood in Minsk.
Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, said there was little doubt Bondarenko was beaten by security forces before being taken into police custody, and later dying in hospital.
“It is time to put an end to this reign of terror and unmask all those responsible for committing these crimes. If that does not happen, it means security forces under the command of [Lukashenko] continue to deploy the most horrific tactics of repression – merciless torture and even killings – against their own people,” she said.