Tens of thousands of opposition supporters marched in the Belarusian capital of Minsk on Sunday, despite the authorities having deployed a strong police presence.
The protest came the day after officers arrested hundreds of protesters during a women’s march in the capital.
Trucks and military vehicles entered downtown Minsk as anonymous hackers leaked what they said were the personal data of more than 1,000 police officers in retaliation for a crackdown on anti-government demonstrations.
The protest movement calling for the departure of longtime president Alexander Lukashenko has held mass demonstrations every week since his disputed election victory on 9 August.
The latest opposition protests began on Sunday at 1
People with red and white protest flags gathered at the “March of Justice” which occupied the entire central boulevard and walked to the Independence Palace, where Lukashenko has his offices.
They held signs with slogans like “Cowards beat women” and “Get out!”.
At first, riot police wearing black balaclavas sporadically arrested protesters with flags and placards, while some people took refuge in a shopping mall and fast food restaurant to escape arrest.
Belarusian opposition news sites posted videos and photos of the military convoy entering downtown Minsk carrying rolls of barbed wire.
The protest comes after riot police cracked down on peaceful protesters on Saturday who had come out wearing shiny accessories for a so-called “Sparkling March”. The police dragged the protesters into the vans, lifting some women off their feet and carrying them.
Belarusian Interior Ministry spokeswoman Olga Chemodanova said on Sunday that police arrested 415 people in Minsk and 15 in other cities for breaking rules on mass demonstrations. He said 385 had been released.
Chemodanova warned Belarusians that they could be indicted for organizing such protests.
The number of detentions on Saturday was far greater than that of a similar protest last week, prompting the Opposition Coordination Council to warn of “a new phase in escalating violence against peaceful protesters.”
Among the detainees was one of the most prominent faces of the protest movement, 73-year-old activist Nina Baginskaya, although she was later released.
Police data leaked
Aggressive police tactics prompted an opposition Telegram channel – Nexta, which has more than two million subscribers – to publish what it said was a list of the names and ranks of more than 1,000 policemen.
“As the arrests continue, we will continue to publish large-scale data,” a statement on the messaging app said Saturday night. “Nobody will remain anonymous even under a balaclava”.
The demonstrators tried to unmask the identity of the police officers who appear at the demonstrations in plain clothes or in uniform without name badges or insignia, trying to take off masks and balaclavas.
The government said it would find and punish those behind the data leak.
“The forces, means and technologies at the disposal of internal affairs bodies make it possible to identify and prosecute the vast majority of perpetrators of personal data leaks on the Internet,” said Chemodanova.
In power since 1994, Lukashenko was officially declared the winner of last month’s polls with 80.1% of the vote. The opposition, however, denounces a fraud and considers the opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who took refuge in Lithuania, the real winner.
In a video clip, Tikhanovskaya urged his Belarusian fellow citizens to continue fighting for a country worth living in in the so-called “March of Justice”.
“Every week you show yourself and the world that the Belarusian people are a force,” said the 38-year-old.
Tikhanovskaya will meet EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday as the EU prepares sanctions against those he blames for rigging elections and violent crackdowns on protesters.
The authorities imprisoned many of Tikhanovskaya’s allies who formed the leadership of the Coordinating Council, or kicked them out of the country.
One of her campaign mates, Maria Kolesnikova, was jailed and accused of undermining national security.
Lukashenko rejected opposition demands for his resignation and asked for help from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who promised law enforcement support if needed and a $ 1.5 billion loan.