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Thousands rally in Belarus after opposition protester’s death

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Demonstrators make victory sign and hold up phones with flashlights to pay tribute to Raman Bandarenka at the yard called ‘The Square of Changes’ in Minsk, late on November 12, 2020, a day after 31-year-old activist Bandarenka was beaten by unknown masked people and died in hospital. (Photo by Stringer / AFP)

Thousands of demonstrators turned out in the Belarusian capital Minsk on Friday to protest the death of an artist after police arrested him earlier this week.

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 before his death.

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.

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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 red-and-white ribbons — the colours of the opposition — and plainclothes police who were removing them.

The artist 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.

Exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya on called for a minute’s silence to take place at noon on Friday “in every neighbourhood 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.

Tikhanovskaya, 38, believes she was the true winner of the presidential polls and has gained the support of Western leaders who have refused to recognise 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.”

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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 the artist 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 passed the human chains honking as the 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”.

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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.

Several people have died in the crackdown.

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