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With applause and flowers, thousands attend funeral of Belarusian protester

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Thousands of people silently raised their arms in the air, held flowers aloft and broke into chants outside a church in Minsk on Friday at the funeral of a Belarusian protester.

The death of 31-year-old Roman Bondarenko has become a flashpoint in months-long mass protests against President Alexander Lukashenko. 

Witnesses said Bondarenko was detained after a scuffle with people in plain clothes who came to a playground to remove red-and-white ribbons representing the protest movement. 

People react, as they pass by the coffin of anti-government protester Roman Bondarenko in a church during a memorial ceremony in Minsk, Belarus, 20 November 2020. Thousands of people came to make their farewell and mourn the death of 31-year-old protester Roman Bondarenko, who was reportedly beaten by security forces on late 11 November in such a way that he died in hospital later.

EPA-EFE/STR

He died in hospital last week after what protesters say was a severe beating by security forces. The interior ministry denied responsibility. 

The death was condemned by the European Union who on Thursday announced new sanctions on Minsk in response to state repression against protesters following a disputed August election.

Opponents accuse Lukashenko of rigging the election to extend his 26-year grip on power. He denies electoral fraud and, backed by Russia, has refused to resign.

The crowd outside the church, the majority wearing masks, chanted “I’m going out”, the last known written words of Bondarenko, and “long live Belarus”.

People show victory sign and hold flowers as they gather outside a church during a memorial ceremony to anti-govrnment protester Roman Bondarenko in Minsk, Belarus, 20 November 2020. Thousands of people took came to make their farewell and mourn the death of 31-year-old protester Roman Bondarenko, who was reportedly beaten by security forces on late 11 November in such a way that he died in hospital later. EPA-EFE/STR

Cars blared their horns in the street. Thousands broke into applause as the coffin was carried out of the church. Mourners, some in tears, gathered at the burial site. 

MEDIC DETAINED

The authorities this week detained a medic who leaked a medical report of Bondarenko’s death to the media. The medical report showed there was no alcohol in Bondarenko’s bloodstream, casting doubt on the government’s assertion that Bondarenko had been drunk and died in a scuffle with civilians.

The Prosecutor General’s office has opened a criminal investigation into the medic for revealing medical secrets, spreading false information and fuelling tensions in society. A journalist who published the report was also detained.

Lukashenko accused the protesters of gathering at the funeral against the wishes of Bondarenko’s family, and of fanning tensions by spreading fake reports about Bondarenko’s death on social media. 

People react in grief as they gather outside a church during a memorial ceremony to anti-government protester Roman Bondarenko in Minsk, Belarus, 20 November 2020. Thousands of people came to make their farewell and mourn the death of 31-year-old protester Roman Bondarenko, who was reportedly beaten by security forces on late 11 November in such a way that he died in hospital later. EPA-EFE/STR

After the EU’s latest sanctions announcement, non-EU member Norway said it would adopt similar measures.

United Nations human rights experts said on Thursday they were gravely concerned by increased reports of mass detentions, intimidation and torture. They urged Belarusian authorities to investigate the excessive use of force and unlawful retaliation at peaceful protests.

Tens of thousands of people have staged regular protests for weeks since the election. Some workers at major state-run companies went on strike. This week, potash producer Belaruskali said 49 workers had been fired for taking part in the strike.

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