KYIV, Ukraine — Belarus’ authoritarian leader on Monday denied that his government unleashed massive repression of dissent after his re-election a year ago triggered a monthslong wave of mass protests, even as his law enforcement officials admitted receiving over 5,000 complaints about beating and torture.
President Alexander Lukashenko’s remarks came during an epic eight-hour press conference on the anniversary of the vote that handed him a sixth term but was denounced by the opposition and the West as rigged.
The event, during which Lukashenko lashed out at Western journalists while some Belarusian reporters and bloggers emotionally defended his government’s actions, came as Belarus faces growing pressure from the West over its treatment of government critics.
Lukashenko asserted that the election was carried out in “total transparency” and that the opposition “who called for bashing the authorities (were preparing) for a coup.”
Belarus was shaken by the protests, the largest of which drew up to 200,000 people. Authorities responded with a crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police. Leading opposition figures have been jailed or forced to leave the country.
Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for 27 years, has denounced his opponents as foreign stooges and accused the U.S. and its allies of plotting to overthrow his government.
He has vaguely promised to step down after Belarus adopts a new constitution but kept quiet about when it might happen. On Monday, Lukashenko said it would happen “very soon.”
The authorities have ramped up their crackdown in recent months, targeting independent journalists and democracy activists with raids and arrests and sometimes going to extremes such as diverting a plane to the capital of Minsk and arresting a dissident aboard.
Lukashenko on Monday denied repression in Belarus, adding: “To unleash repressions in Belarus is (the same as) to shoot myself. I know it well and I will never cross that line.”
Several hours later, however, pressed by foreign journalists about numerous reports of beatings and torture of peaceful demonstrators, the president acknowledged that some may have “gotten it” from law enforcement but only because they broke the law and “came to the barricades with knives and blades.”
The head of Belarus’ Investigative Committee, Dmitry Gora, told the press conference that law enforcement received more than 5,000 complaints about beating and torture, but Lukashenko dismissed them as not based on facts and aimed at “confusing” the police.
The pressure on dissent has elicited international outrage, and the U.S. and European Union have slapped Belarus with sanctions that target top government officials and key sectors of the country’s economy.
In response, Lukashenko has said his country will not try to stem a flow of illegal migrants to the EU. Lithuania in recent months has faced a surge of mostly Iraqi migrants it has blamed on Lukashenko’s government.
On Monday, the president also threatened to stop cooperating with the U.S. in the fight against smuggling of radioactive materials if the sanctions pressure continues. “Who needs some dirty explosives going to the European Union?” Lukashenko said, citing the surge of migrants as an example of Western pressure backfiring. “We’re not blackmailing, we’re not threatening, we’re forced to react,” he said.
Last week, Belarus once again drew international attention. At the Tokyo Games, a Belarusian Olympic sprinter accused the country’s officials of trying to put her on a plane back to Belarus after she publicly criticized the management of her team. Krystsina Tsimanouskaya refused to board the plane and sought refuge in Poland.
In his first comment on the incident, Lukashenko accused her of being a foreign stooge, saying that “she wouldn’t have done it herself if she hadn’t been manipulated.”
Around the same time, a Belarusian activist who ran a group in Ukraine helping Belarusians fleeing persecution was found hanged in Kyiv, with his allies alleging that Belarus’ authorities were behind his death.
Lukashenko brushed off the accusations and demanded Ukraine to investigate Vitaly Shishov’s death. “It needs to be figured out. But if you’ve accused us, (put) facts on the table. Facts on the table!” he said.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s top challenger in last year’s election who left Belarus under government pressure and is now in exile in Lithuania, said Monday that “the regime” in Minsk had turned into a “terrorist one” and urged Western nations to impose more sanctions.
“We expect that the U.S., Britain and Canada will announce coordinated sanctions against the regime shortly,” she said during a joint briefing with Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielus Landsbergis, adding that her team is working on “bringing closer an international tribunal over the regime’s crimes.”
Landsbergis said the international community should not recognize any international agreements signed by “illegal president” Lukashenko.
The U.K. on Monday announced tightening economic sanctions against Belarus. The measures target trade with Belarusian state-owned companies, government finance and aviation, including a ban on British firms providing technical assistance to Lukashenko’s fleet of luxury aircraft.
Other Western officials marked the anniversary of the election with messages of support for the people of Belarus.
European Council President Charles Michel tweeted that the EU “stands firmly” with Belarus and “will continue to do so.”