Belarus police detain dozens of protesters at Saturday’s rally

Belarus police detained dozens of protesters on Saturday as thousands gathered in the capital Minsk demanding the release of a jailed opposition leader, news wires reported. Maria Kolesnikova has emerged as a key opposition figure after others were either jailed or forced out of the country, including Svetlana Tikhanovskaya who challenged President Alexander Lukashenko in the presidential election a month ago.

At least 5,000 protesters, many of them women, gathered in central Minsk on Saturday, chanting “Go away!” in reference to Lukashenko, and “Masha” - a common alternative for Maria - in support of Kolesnikova, a Reuters witness said. “Sveta is my president, Masha is my queen,” read one of the slogans held up in the crowd. Police started detaining people shortly after the protests started at 1200 GMT. As of 1650 GMT, at least 46 were held in police stations, mostly women, according to the Spring human rights group.

Kolesnikova was driven to the Ukrainian border earlier this week after being seen snatched off the streets of Minsk and into a van by masked men. According to two allies who were with her, she prevented an attempt to expel her from Belarus by tearing her passport up into small pieces and throwing it out of a car window. She is now detained in Minsk, and faces a potential long prison term over accusations of trying to seize power illegally.

Tikhanovskaya, who stood against Lukashenko in place of her better-known husband who was detained before election, called on Saturday for the police to stop cracking down on dissent. “Violence you are putting on women is disgraceful,” she said in a statement. “Anyone who commits a crime against peaceful protesters will be called to answer.”

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