The beating and arrest Saturday of Alexander Kozulin, a key opposition leader and a presidential candidate in last week's election now branded as a farce by the EU and the U.S. signaled the onset of a bloody melee in Minsk that left thousands beaten up,several of them in grave condition, tear-gassed, stunned with percussion grenades and chased all over town by club-wielding policemen. Hundreds have been detained. Arrests are still underway in the city. Earlier, Kazulin had told TIME in an interview that the government's response to the protests underscored its lack of legitimacy.
Although the habit is frowned upon by the government, March 25 is celebrated by many in Belarus as Liberty Day the anniversary of the short-lived independent People's Republic of Belarus, proclaimed in 1918, but crushed by the Bolsheviks six months later. This year's anniversary coincided with a mass protest rally against the fraudulent election staged by President Alexander Lukashenko in order to extend his 12 years in power.
The opposition had planned to hold the rally in Oktyabrskaya Square in the center of the capital, Minsk, where police on Friday had destroyed a protest tent camp and arrested 328 activists. Human rights groups allege that many of these detainees were badly beaten and abused. And then, as Saturday's protesters began heading to the Square, they found it and the approaching streets blocked by riot police, who had blockaded the entire town, forcing the opposition into a nearby Yanka Kupala park.
The opposition stresses its intentions had been peaceful. "We're not planning any violence, any taking of the Bastille," vowed Alexander Milinkevich, a presidential candidate of united democratic parties and opposition leader. "I hope the authorities understand this."
But the authorities that had rigged the election were in no mood to extend such understanding to Milinkevich and his followers. Instead, their attempt to squelch a peaceful protest added to the growing resentment and provoked a major clash.
Says Irina Khalip, a respected Belarus journalist and human rights activist honored in 2005 as one of Time's European Heroes, "There were some 20,000 of us, packed in the park and gathered around. The people were angry with the rigged election, mass arrests and inhuman treatment of the detainees which their families learned about from cell phone calls and messages, before the phones were taken away. Most families did not even know where their sons and daughters were held. So, Kozulin led the protest march to the Okrestina street jail. The people wanted to protest and to find out where their relatives are."
Nataliya Razina of the Charter 97 human rights group, who took part in the march, says marchers headed for Okrestina jail in a Liberty Day show of solidarity with the prisoners. "It was all so peaceful, people were carrying balloons, flowers, and smiling," she says. "I donít recall having felt so good over these last tense weeks. But all of a sudden they started shooting grenades and tear gas at us. It was such a transition to horror."
The column had been met with lines of riot police, whose commanding officer Kozulin approached with a smile on his lips and flowers in hand. Khalip remembers the troopers launching the assault, but it's painful to her to talk more she is still suffering aftershocks of a stun grenade exploding near her.
Now, even more people are desperately searching for their arrested or missing relatives and friends. "We have been calling all the precincts, jails and hospitals for the last two hours," Irina Kozulina told Time, "But we still don't know where they keep my husband and what became of him."
Nor do the people know what will become of their Belarus under the authoritarian rule of Lukashenko. Shortly before Saturday's crackdown, Milinkevich had pledged to join forces with Kozulin to create an opposition united front. But Milinkevich has since blamed Kozulin for having provoked the melee, suggesting the nascent coalition may be short-lived and leaving opposition supporters disorganized and leaderless in the face of a crackdown. Still, many vow they will fight back, regardless of who is willing to lead them.