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Protesters Tell of Abuse and Gas

MINSK -- Scores of people detained during opposition protests were released from prison Friday, with some reporting they were beaten, gassed and taunted by Belarussian police, and the opposition claimed one protester had apparently died in a hospital after being beating.

Sergei Kalyakin, the coordinator of the united opposition headquarters, said at a news conference Friday that Sergei Atroshchenko had been brutally beaten by police and died of head injuries Wednesday.

Police refused to comment on the report, and officials at a hospital where Atroshchenko was believed to be held said they never had such a patient.

The released were among the hundreds of opposition supporters seized a week ago when police raided an encampment on Minsk's main square. The camp had been the epicenter of an unprecedented wave of daily protests after the March 19 presidential elections, which many claimed were fraudulent. The election results gave President Alexander Lukashenko a third term in office.

Hundreds of protesters were rounded up in trucks and detained.

"They threw me into the truck, and I fell into a cloud of gas, and my head immediately started to hurt," said Vladimir Romantsov, 53, one of those released early Friday.

Kristina Shatikova, 30, left the Okrestino detention facility with a cap pulled low on her head to try to hide bruises on her face. "They beat us very hard in the trucks," she said.

She said police threw scalding water from a pot that camp members had been using to prepare food onto the face of one of the other detainees.

She also said some female detainees were sexually abused by police.

Artyom Lukyanchik, 21, said he was arrested about 1 kilometer away from the tent camp as he tried to bring warm clothing to people spending the night there. He was placed in a police bus with about 30 others. "In the bus, they made us lie on the floor, then they walked on our heads and beat us," he said. The police also forced people on the bus to say "I voted for Lukashenko," he said.

The opposition, led by presidential candidate Alexander Milinkevich, contends that the vote count -- which gave Lukashenko 83 percent of the vote -- was severely manipulated and is calling for a rerun of the election, without the participation of Lukashenko.

The United States and the European Union have sharply and repeatedly condemned the election the violence afterward. Hundreds of opposition supporters remain in jail, human rights groups say, and the EU on Friday demanded their immediate release.

Such calls appear to have little effect on Lukashenko, other than to reinforce his disdain for the West and his contention that Washington and Brussels are funding malcontents to try to overthrow him.

The Belarussian Foreign Ministry on Friday assailed Poland for making "unprecedented" moves that worsened bilateral relations and recalled Belarus' ambassador in Poland for consultations. The move follows Milinkevich's trip to Poland earlier in the week.

Milinkevich said Friday that he would have talks in Vienna on Monday with EU president Austria, go to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday and Thursday, and attend a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg on April 10, Reuters reported.

(The Moscow Times 03.iv.06)

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