KYIV – 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 nearly 5,000 complaints about beatings 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 Aug. 9, 2020 presidential 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 even diverting a plane to the capital of Minsk and arresting a dissident aboard.
A total of 29 journalists are behind bars, awaiting trials or serving their sentences. More than 100 non-governmental organizations are facing closure.
On Monday evening, Belarus' Supreme Court ruled to formally dissolve the Belarusian PEN Center, an association of writers led by Svetlana Alexievich, the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature and member of the opposition's Coordination Council.
Lukashenko on Monday denied that there was any 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 used against peaceful demonstrators, the president acknowledged that some may have “gotten it” from law enforcement but said that was only because they “came to the barricades with knives and blades.”
The head of Belarus' Investigative Committee, Dmitry Gora, told the press conference that law enforcement received nearly 5,000 complaints about beatings and torture, but Lukashenko dismissed them as not based on facts.
The pressure on dissent in Belarus 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 neighboring EU nations. Lithuania 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 the smuggling of radioactive materials if the sanctions continue.
“Who needs some dirty explosives going to the European Union?” Lukashenko said. “We're not blackmailing, we're not threatening, we're forced to react."
Last week, Belarus once again drew international attention. At the Tokyo Games, a Belarusian Olympic sprinter accused the country’s officials of trying to force her onto a plane back to Belarus after she publicly criticized the management of her team. Krystsina Tsimanouskaya refused to board the plane and has sought refuge in Poland.
In his first comment on her case, Lukashenko accused the sprinter of being a foreign stooge, saying “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. His allies allege that Belarus' authorities were behind his death.
Lukashenko brushed off the accusations and demanded that Ukraine 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, left Belarus under government pressure and is now in exile in Lithuania. She said Monday that “the regime" in Minsk had turned into a “terrorist one” and urged Western nations to impose more sanctions on Lukashenko's government.
Speaking during a joint briefing with Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielus Landsbergis, Tsikhanouskaya said 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 the “illegal president” Lukashenko.
The U.K. on Monday announced tightened economic sanctions against Belarus. New sanctions were also announced by U.S. President Joe Biden and the government of Canada.
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.” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Twitter that Washington holds "Lukashenko's “regime to account with new tools and the most robust sanctions package to date.”
Valery Karbalevich, an independent Belarusian political analyst, told The Associated Press that Lukashenko has managed to stay in power despite the unrest at a steep price, as “Western sanctions lead to impoverishment of Belarusians and undermine the tacit social contract between the authorities and the society.”
Karbalevich believes the media show Monday may not convince ordinary Belarusians, whose living conditions are worsening.
“This poorly directed eight-hour show may have the opposite effect — the louder (pro-government reporters) declare their love and loyalty to Lukashenko, the more questions Belarusians have,” Karbalevich said.
Associated Press writer Daria Litvinova in Moscow and Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania, contributed.