Belarusian Opposition Holds Protest Rally

Posted March 25th, 2012 at 5:25 pm (UTC-5)
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Thousands of opposition supporters and activists gathered Sunday in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, to mark the 94th anniversary of the country's short-lived independence from Russia in 1918.

The rally was the largest since authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko won his fourth term in office in December 2010 and intensified his crackdown on the opposition.

The opposition has used the anniversary to protest Mr. Lukashenko's rule. Last year, police detained and beat dozens of demonstrators. But this year, protesters were allowed to gather peacefully amid tight security.

They demanded the release of all political prisoners, including two former presidential candidates who ran against Mr. Lukashenko.

“The situation in the country demands that we take to the streets. For the last one a-half years the country has been moving in completely the wrong direction.”

The rally was held two days after the European Union imposed new sanctions on Belarus in an effort to persuade Minsk to free the prisoners.

Foreign ministers of the 27-nation bloc agreed Friday to freeze the assets and extend an EU travel ban on an additional 12 Belarusian nationals. They also banned 29 Belarusian companies from operating in the European Union.

The new ban is in addition to the existing EU measures that keep more than 200 Belarusian political and business leaders in isolation for the government's persistent abuse of the human and civil rights of its citizens.

Hundreds of people were arrested during the mass street protests following the December 2010 presidential vote, which western observers said was fraudulent.

President Lukashenko has ruled Belarus for almost 18 years, cracking down on the opposition and repressing freedoms in defiance of warnings from western countries.