Opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya has called on Belarusians to start a new wave of protests against Alyaksandr Lukashenka on March 25 as they mark the anniversary of the short-lived Belarusian People's Republic.
Tsikhanouskaya urged Belarusians to use the annual Dzen Voli (Freedom Day) celebration to hold street rallies in Minsk and other Belarusian cities against the authoritarian leader and declare their unity against the political crisis in Belarus.
“Belarusians are already celebrating Freedom Day,” Tsikhanouskaya said on Twitter late on March 24 in a tweet that showed a video of fireworks in the red and white colors of the opposition.
But the event in Minsk faces challenges from police, who have refused to agree to provide security for the activists, and Amnesty International expressed concern about how authorities could respond. Ryhor Kastusyou, chairman of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front (BNF) party, told RFE/RL on March 22 that the police cited pandemic restrictions and "ongoing calls from several extremist channels in Telegram" to hold unsanctioned street protests on March 25 as the reasons for refusing to provide security.
Kastusyou said that there wasn't enough time to appeal the decision in court, and that without police security it was unlikely organizers would receive official permission from the city executive committee to hold their event. March 25 is the 103rd anniversary of the Belarusian People's Republic, which existed for less than a year in 1918. The day has been celebrated annually in Belarus since 1989.
Amnesty International warned that Belarusian authorities have indicated that they are prepared to turn Freedom Day rallies into “yet another scene of appalling violence.”
Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia Director, said the police response to demonstrations planned for March 25 “will yet again be marked by severe violence” and called for international action to protect the rights of peaceful protesters. “The world cannot stand by in the face of these threats,” Struthers said, calling on diplomatic representatives in Belarus to monitor the March 25 protests, live-stream events, and use their diplomatic immunity to expose police violence. Tsikhanouskaya is currently in Lithuania, where she relocated for security reasons after the August 9 presidential election that she and her supporters say she won. Lukashenka's victory declaration sparked protests that have continued since the election on an almost daily basis. Some of the largest ones drew tens of thousands of people to the streets to demand that Lukashenka step down, fresh elections, and the release of political prisoners. Security officials have cracked down hard on the demonstrators, arresting thousands. Several protesters have been killed in the violence, some were handed prison terms, while rights organizations say there is credible evidence of torture being used against some of those detained. Lukashenka has denied any wrongdoing and refuses to negotiate his departure from office and new elections. The European Union, United States, Canada, and other countries have refused to recognize Lukashenka, 66, as the legitimate leader of Belarus and have slapped him and senior Belarusian officials with sanctions in response to the “falsification” of the vote and postelection crackdown.