MINSK, Belarus – In a show of strength, security forces in Belarus on Saturday arrested hundreds of women who were participating in a protest march against the re-election of the country’s strongman, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko.
Following a merciless crackdown on protests following the presidential election in August, women have emerged as the face of dissent in Belarus, a country of 9.5 million squeezed between Russia and the European Union. Often holding flowers and wearing white shirts, Belarusian women have come to symbolize the peaceful nature of the protests and offer a stark contrast to the brutality of Mr. Lukashenko̵
“Women can do a lot, they can fight against a dictator,” said Irina K. Palyukovich, an economist, who took part in the so-called Women’s March on Saturday. “Men cannot do this not because they are weak, but they are more vulnerable,” said Ms. Palyukovich, 35. “They are beaten more often.”
Ms. Palyukovich was one of around 1,000 women who marched from the capital’s central market square, Minsk, through the city.
Initially, the procession was largely free of police, with only a few officers filming the demonstration and several undercover officers following the march in vans. Then, a group of riot police officers wearing balaclavas vigorously pushed a large portion of protesters into a trap in front of a shopping mall.
A verbal confrontation ensued with women yelling at police officers and chanting: “Only a coward can beat a woman.” Some of the police officers, who did not identify themselves, responded by saying that the demonstrators had been paid to get out of foreign governments, a common theme put forward by Mr. Lukashenko and state news in Belarus.
Many women were visibly terrified as they were confronted, blocked from all sides by stout, masked men. At least one woman was taken away by ambulance after she fell ill and fell to the ground. One by one, the police officers took the women to the police vans.
More than 300 women were arrested on Saturday, according to Viasna, a human rights group. In the late evening, many were released from police districts, where officers had taken their photographs and fingerprints.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Lukashenko’s main rival in the August elections, who fled Belarus under duress, condemned the detentions, which she described as “illegality”.
In a preemptive counter-move ahead of Saturday’s march, on Friday, Mr. Lukashenko’s assistants summoned thousands of pro-government women to a concert at a hockey stadium in Minsk.
Speaking at the demonstration, Lukashenko denied that the recent presidential elections were rigged and that the police used force against the protesters. He accused E.U. members, especially Poland and Lithuania, fueling the protests to create a pretext for military intervention in Belarus.
“They have many tricks in their arsenal and we are on the verge of a terrible catastrophe,” Lukashenko said, referring to his opponents.