Updated at 17:39,28-11-2020

Belarus: thousands protest against death of teacher in police custody

The Guardian

Belarus: thousands protest against death of teacher in police custody
Thousands attend a vigil on Square of Change where Bondarenko was arrested. Photograph: BelaPAN/Reuters
Roman Bondarenko, 31, died after being beaten by plainclothes police officers in Minsk

Thousands of Belarusians have protested against the death in police custody of a military veteran and children’s art teacher arrested for his opposition to the authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko.

Roman Bondarenko, a 31-year-old artist, was pummelled by several men believed to be plainclothes police officers in a Minsk courtyard known as the Square of Change on Wednesday in a dispute over ribbons indicating support for anti-government protests.

Bondarenko, who reportedly hit his head on the ground during the attack, was then detained and taken away in a van, disappearing into police custody. When his family finally located him, he was in a coma in a city hospital, where he died due to brain damage on Thursday.

In Minsk on Sunday, police wielded clubs and used teargas and water cannons to disperse thousands of demonstrators. The Viasna human rights organisation reported detentions at demonstrations in other cities, including Vitebsk and Gomel. It said the nationwide arrest total was at least 928 and that some of those detained were beaten by police.

The government has washed its hands of Bondarenko’s death, saying his injuries were sustained in a street fight between government and opposition supporters. His family are convinced he was beaten in custody after his arrest, with one relative saying that “everything that happened to him happened after the square”.

“I am filming this video so that more people know what is happening in this country, that people are absolutely defenceless,” Olga Kuchurenko, a relative, said in a video posted by Radio Svoboda.

Belarus has been rocked by the largest protests in its history after Lukashenko claimed victory in August elections marred by widespread voter fraud.

The death is the latest trauma endured by Belarus’ protest movement. Thousands of people have been beaten and tortured in police stations, members of the political opposition have been jailed or forced to flee the country, and donations to victims of the violence have been seized by the government.

Protests took place on Thursday and Friday, with thousands taking part in a vigil at the square on Thursday evening, leaving flowers and lighting candles in Bondarenko’s memory. “Tribunal!” the crowds chanted, calling for justice.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a former presidential candidate now living outside of Belarus, wrote on Telegram: “Roman Bondarenko was killed by accomplices of the regime. He was an innocent victim of an inhumane system that considers people’s lives to be the cost of power. We all understand that any peaceful person could have ended up in his place.”

European diplomats expressed concern over Bondarenko’s death. Linas Linkevičius, Lithuania’s foreign affairs minister, wrote that he was “shocked” at the “astonishing cynicism, cruelty of the regime”.

An EU spokesman threatened to impose additional sanctions against the government. “This is an outrageous and shameful result of the actions by the Belarusian authorities who have not only directly and violently carried out repression of their own population, but also created an environment whereby such lawless, violent acts can take place,” they said.

Last week the EU announced sanctions including a travel ban and asset freeze against Lukashenko, his son Viktor and 13 officials responsible for the “violent repression and intimidation of peaceful demonstrators”.

On Friday the Belarusian parliament discussed a new measure apparently aimed at opposition supporters that could lead to those found guilty of extremism or “causing damage to the national interest” being stripped of citizenship.