Belarus' authoritarian leader has sought to disparage protesters demanding his resignation for a sixth straight week following a disputed election by accusing the United States of fomenting the unrest.
In a long speech to top officials, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko ranted against the alleged US-led plan to destabilise the country and claimed that American allies in Europe have participated in the effort that took years to prepare, part of his attempts to cast the opposition as Western stooges.
Lukashenko didn't provide evidence to back his claim that the US had any involvement in the demonstrations.
His main challenger in the election, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, dismissed his comments as an attempt to divert public attention from rigging the vote and the violent crackdown on protests.
“There is just one reason behind the protests in Belarus and it's known to everyone: Lukashenko has lost the vote, but he doesn’t want to step down,” Tikhanovskaya said. “People have denied Lukashenko their trust and support and demand that he leave.”
Protesters in Belarus have flooded the streets of the Belarusian capital and other cities, denouncing Lukashenko's landslide reelection in the August 9 vote as rigged. The massive demonstrations were driven by frustration with the Belarusian leader's 26-year iron-fist rule, his cavalier response to the coronavirus and the worsening economy.
The US and the European Union have criticised the election as neither free nor fair, and urged Lukashenko to start talks with the opposition – a call he has rejected.
“We had the vote and got the result, period,” Lukashenko said in Wednesday's speech before top officials. “It's time to stop stirring up society.”
Russian spymaster accuses US of fomenting protests
Sergei Naryshkin, director of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, claimed in a statement carried by Russian news agencies on Wednesday that the US has funded the Belarusian opposition and encouraged the protests.
In an apparent attempt to delegitimise the Belarusian protests, Naryshkin added that his agency has information that “the US is playing a key role in the current developments in Belarus.” He alleged that the US has earmarked tens of millions of dollars to finance Belarus' opposition groups, but provided no evidence.
The US Embassy in Minsk had no immediate comment.
Tikhanovskaya, the main opposition challenger who left for Lithuania a day after the vote under official pressure, rejected Naryshkin's statement.
“It's an internal political crisis, and the protesters' demands contain nothing regarding relations with other countries or a shift in Belarus' foreign policy course,” she said in written remarks to the AP. “Mr. Naryshkin should better understand that instead of airing dated propaganda cliches.”
In Wednesday's speech, Lukashenko charged that the Czech Republic, Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine have helped fuel protests. All those countries have denied similar claims by Lukashenko in the past.
“The Belarusian 2020 scenario is a combination of the most effective ‘colour’ destabilisation technologies that have been tested in various countries," he said in a reference to the colour-coded protests that have ousted unpopular rulers in other ex-Soviet nations. “They obviously count on the scale and duration of protests to wear us down and exhaust our resources. We aren't relaxing and stand ready to respond to any challenge.”
Torture rife in Belarus police stations, rights groups say
Protesters are being tortured in police stations across Belarus, where authorities have failed to open investigations, human rights experts said, holding a press conference in Geneva where alleged victims spoke by video link from Minsk.
The Belarus Interior Ministry did not immediately reply to a Reuters request for comment. In the past, the Belarusian authorities have said the police are humane and professional but have declined to comment on specific allegations of abuse which are under review.
Some 7,000 protesters have been detained since President Alexander Lukashenko retained power after a disputed presidential election on August 9, said the Geneva-based World Organization against Torture (OMCT) and Spring, a human rights group based in Minsk.
More than 500 people had provided testimony of torture, which may be "only the tip of the iceberg," said Gerald Staberock, OMCT secretary-general.
"The key issue here is that what we have seen after the election unfolding is systematic, planned and intentional torture, used by the State," Staberock told Reuters Television.
"We see clear evidence of a planned and organised type of violence, a policy of cruelty, you could call it."
In an investigation published earlier this month, Reuters interviewed 12 people who said they had been abused in custody. Medical records from six of them showed injuries including external and internal bruising, traumatic brain injury, concussion and a vertebral fracture.
UN human rights investigators said on September 1, that they had received reports of hundreds of cases of torture, beatings and mistreatment of anti-government protesters.
Valentin Stefanovich, deputy chair of Spring, speaking from Minsk, said the group had recorded more than 1,000 complaints of abuse by police, none of which had resulted in a case being opened.
Detainees had been "beaten with batons, maltreated, injured, (causing) bone fractures, wounds and massive bruises, and electrocuted with stun guns and shot with rubber bullets," he said. "The detainees were deprived of sleep, hygiene products, food and water, denied medical assistance and necessary medicines."
Three alleged victims – two men and a woman – addressed the briefing from Minsk via video link, with their faces out of the frame.
They said police had beaten and mistreated them in detention centres.
"Frankly speaking I don't remember what I signed because I was under threat of electroshock," said one of the men.
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