MINSK, Belarus (AP) – Several thousand people turned out for an anti-government rally in Belarus on Sunday to call for the freeing of political prisoners and for the former Soviet republic to become a European-style democracy.
The protest rally was the largest since authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko won a fourth term in a December 2010 election and intensified his crackdown on the opposition.
The opposition has traditionally held rallies on March 25 to mark the anniversary of Belarus’ short-lived declaration of independence from Russia in 1918. Lukashenko’s government usually bans the rallies and sends in police to break them up. Last year, dozens of demonstrators were beaten and detained.
This year, protesters were allowed to gather peacefully, but each one had to pass through security controls and be photographed.
All subway stations in the center of Minsk were closed in an apparent effort to reduce the number of protesters. An estimated 3,000 to 5,000 took part.
“I want my children to live in a European, free Belarus. And that is stronger than the fear that paralyzes society,” said 32-year-old Irina Lemesheva, who came with her husband and 7-year-old daughter.
Some protesters held portraits of political prisoners.
“My husband is in prison on the verge of dying, while continuing a hunger strike against the arbitrary rule and dictatorship in Belarus,” Alyona Kovalenko told the crowd. Her husband, Sergei Kovalenko, was sentenced to two years in prison for displaying the opposition flag.
Twelve political prisoners remain behind bars, including two former presidential candidates who ran against Lukashenko.
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