MINSK, Belarus – In a demonstration of power in Belarus on Saturday, security forces arrested hundreds of women who were marching against the re-election of the country’s strongest man, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko.
After ruthless crackdown on the protests following the presidential elections in August, women have emerged as the face of dissent in Belarus, a country of 9.5 million people between Russia and the European Union. Belarusian women, who often hold flowers and wear white shirts, symbolize the peaceful nature of protests and contrast starkly with the brutality of Mr. Lukashenko̵
“Women can do a lot, they can fight a dictator,” said the economist Irina K. Palyukovich, who took part in the so-called women’s march on Saturday. “Men can’t because they are weak, but they are more vulnerable,” said Ms. Palyukovich, 35. “They are beaten more often.”
Ms. Palyukovich was one of about 1,000 women who marched through the city from the central market square in the capital Minsk.
Initially, the procession was largely unhindered by the police. Few officers filmed the demonstration and several undercover agents followed the march in delivery trucks. Then a group of riot police wearing balaclavas quickly trapped a large part of the protesters in front of a shopping mall.
There was a verbal confrontation with women yelling at police officers and singing, “Only a coward can beat a woman.” Some of the police officers who could not identify themselves replied that the protesters had been paid to come out by foreign governments, a common issue raised by Mr Lukashenko and state news agencies in Belarus.
Many women were visibly frightened when confronted, blocked on all sides by sturdy, masked men. At least one woman was taken away in an ambulance after feeling sick and falling on the floor. One by one, police took women to police cars.
A total of more than 300 women were arrested on Saturday, according to Viasna, a human rights group. Late in the evening, many were released from police stations where officers had taken their photos and fingerprints.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Mr. Lukashenko’s main rival in the August elections, who fled Belarus under duress, condemned the detentions, which she described as “lawlessness”.
In a preventive counterstrike before the march on Saturday, Mr. Lukashenko’s employees gathered thousands of women close to the government for a concert rally in a hockey stadium in Minsk on Friday.
At the rally, Mr. Lukashenko denied that the recent presidential election had been rigged and that police used force against demonstrators. He accused EU members, particularly Poland and Lithuania, of fueling protests to create a pretext for military intervention in Belarus.
“They have a lot of tricks in their arsenal and we are on the verge of a terrible disaster,” said Lukashenko, referring to his opponents.