Belarus said Wednesday that protesters could face serious criminal charges after dozens were arrested at demonstrations over the removal of opposition candidates from presidential polls.
Protesters took to Belarus streets in the capital Minsk and several other cities on Tuesday evening after election officials refused to allow rivals to President Alexander Lukashenko to stand in August 9 polls.
Police said they had detained more than 250 people across the country, alleging the protests were sparked by “internet provocateurs”.
Many were likely to be charged with administrative violations and face fines or short jail terms.
But the Investigative Committee said it was also launching a criminal probe for organising and participating in gross violations of public order, which has a maximum jail term of three years.
“Those involved in illegal activity have been detained. Their actions will be given a legal judgment,” the committee said, adding that it was studying video footage of the protests.
The Viasna rights group, which monitors detentions, said 230 were detained in Minsk and dozens more in other towns.
Riot police forced some to kneel on the floor of police vans and some were hit in the face, Viasna said.
It said at least 32 of those detained in Minsk had been released by Wednesday morning, some with orders to appear in court on charges of violating rules on demonstrations, for which they may receive brief jail terms.
Others were still in police stations and detention centres and were also set for court hearings.
Police did not release information on the numbers detained.
Lukashenko, a former collective farm chief, has been president for 26 years and will seek a sixth term in the August election. He will stand along with four other candidates.
The electoral commission struck out jailed main rival Viktor Babaryko and another popular opposition figure, Valery Tsepkalo, citing issues including violations in income declarations and lack of signatures from supporters.
Babaryko was arrested last month over suspected financial crimes and is being held in the KGB security service’s prison.
The commission allowed the candidacy of one high-profile opposition figure: Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the 37-year-old wife of a jailed vlogger who stood for president after her husband was barred.
In a video statement posted on social media, she condemned police violence.
“Police, riot police, what are you doing? You are beating up your mothers, sisters, brothers and children,” she said.
“People came out for a peaceful protest. People came out to express their discontent.”
The poll is going ahead despite the country of nine million people confirming more than 65,000 coronavirus cases. Lukashenko has refused to impose a strict lockdown.