Thousands of Belarusians have protested against the death in police custody of a military veteran and children’s art teacher arrested for his opposition to authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko.
Roman Bondarenko, a 31-year-old artist, was pummelled by several men believed to be plainclothes police officers in a Minsk courtyard known as the Square of Change on Wednesday in a dispute over ribbons indicating support for anti-government protests.
Bondarenko, who reportedly hit his head on the ground during the attack, was then detained and taken away in a van, disappearing into police custody. When his family finally located him, he was in a coma in a city hospital, where he died due to brain damage on Thursday.
The government has washed its hands of the incident, saying that Bondarenko’s injuries were sustained in a street fight between government and opposition supporters.
His family is convinced that he was beaten in custody after his arrest, with one relative saying that “everything that happened to him happened after the square”.
“I am filming this video so that more people know what is happening in this country, that people are absolutely defenceless,” Olga Kuchurenko, a relative, said in a video posted by Radio Svoboda.
Belarus has been rocked by the largest protests in its history after Lukashenko claimed victory in August elections marred by widespread voter fraud.
The death is the latest trauma endured by Belarus’ protest movement, which has already seen thousands beaten and tortured in police stations, the political opposition jailed and forced to flee the country, and, most recently, donations to victims seized by the government.
Protests took place on Thursday and Friday, with thousands taking part in a vigil at the square on Thursday evening, leaving flowers and lighting candles in Bondarenko’s memory. “Tribunal!” the crowds chanted, calling for justice.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a former presidential candidate now living outside of Belarus, wrote on Telegram: “Roman Bondarenko was killed by accomplices of the regime. He was an innocent victim of an inhumane system that considers people’s lives to be the cost of power. We all understand that any peaceful person could have ended up in his place.”
European diplomats also expressed concern over Bondarenko’s death. Linas Linkevičius, Lithuania’s foreign affairs minister, wrote that he was “shocked” at the “astonishing cynicism, cruelty of the regime”.
“This is an outrageous and shameful result of the actions by the Belarusian authorities who have not only directly and violently carried out repression of their own population, but also created an environment whereby such lawless, violent acts can take place,” said an EU spokesman, threatening to impose additional sanctions against the government.
Last week, the EU announced sanctions, including a travel ban and asset freeze, against Lukashenko, his son Viktor, and 13 other officials responsible for the “violent repression and intimidation of peaceful demonstrators.”
On Friday the Belarusian parliament discussed a new measure apparently aimed at opposition supporters that could see those guilty of extremism or “causing damage to the national interest” stripped of citizenship.