KYIV, Ukraine -- Thousands of people rallied in Belarus on Friday following the death of a 31-year-old opposition supporter who reportedly was beaten by security forces, and the European Union condemned the violent crackdown that Belarusian authorities have continued to enforce against peaceful protesters.
The man's death on Thursday came after more than three months of mass anti-government protests that were sparked by official election results that gave authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko a sixth term in office. Opposition leaders and some poll workers say the results were manipulated, and protesters have been calling for Lukashenko's resignation.
More than 17,000 people have been detained — thousands of them brutally beaten — since the Aug. 9 presidential election in Belarus, human rights advocates have reported.
Thousands of people carrying flowers and candles formed human chains of solidarity in several Belarus cities, including the capital, Minsk, to honor the late opposition supporter, Raman Bandarenka, who died at a Minsk hospital after several hours of surgery for serious injuries. Some of the banners the demonstrators held said, “Stop killing us.”
Bandarenka was detained in a Minsk courtyard on Wednesday by unidentified men, “most likely, plainclothes policemen,” who went there to remove red and white ribbons — a symbol of the protests in Belarus, leader of the Viasna human rights center Ales Bialiatsky said. They handed him over to police officers and Bandarenka was brutally beaten inside a van, Bialiatski said in a statement.
“As a result, Raman sustained a severe head injury and in grave condition was brought to the police (department). An ambulance wasn't called for two more hours. The doctors were unable to save Raman Bandarenka's life,” Bialiatski said, calling for a criminal investigation to hold those responsible for Bandarenka's death accountable.
Belarusian authorities have confirmed that Bandarenka was brought to the hospital from a police department in Minsk but denied responsibility for his death. Police maintained he was injured in a street fight. Belarus' Investigative Committee said Bandarenka also displayed signs of “alcohol intoxication.” An inquiry has been launched.
Bandarenka's death elicited outrage both in Belarus and abroad. The European Union condemned the violence.
“This is an outrageous and shameful result of the actions by the Belarusian authorities, who have not only directly and violently carried out repression of their own population, but also created an environment whereby such lawless, violent acts can take place,” Peter Stano, the EU’s spokesman for foreign affairs and security policy, said in a statement.
Stano accused Lukashenko’s government of “ignoring not only the fundamental rights and freedoms of the Belarusian people, but also disregarding their lives.”
German Foreign Ministry spokesman Christofer Burger called the incident “dismaying,” and said that “the scale of state violence and repression in Belarus is shocking.”
Rupert Colville, the spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, also expressed concern “as the Belarusian government continues to wield the machinery of the state to commit human rights violations.”
Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who challenged Lukashenko in August's presidential election and received the second-most votes, called Bandarenka “a hero” and “an innocent victim of an inhumane system.”
“The man was killed because he wanted to live in a free country,” Tsikhnaouskaya, who is currently in exile in Lithuania, said in a video statement Friday. “But we will never obey those who are ready to kill us.”
In an interview with state media on Friday, Lukashenko offered condolences to Bandarenka's parents and said he told the head of the Investigative Committee that the death needs to be “fairly and objectively” investigated.
Belarus' leader said he ordered the prosecutor general to take the investigation “under the most serious control,” because “everyone started to blame the police.”
Lukashenko also renewed his stance that the ongoing unrest is illegitimate. He likened it to the so-called “color revolutions” that overthrew leaders in other post-Soviet countries.
“We unequivocally assess the events taking place in the country after the elections as an attempt at an unconstitutional coup on the patterns of, as they say now, color revolutions,” he said. "“Any color revolution makes the state weaker and the people poorer.
A total of four people, including Bandarenka, are reported to have died since the protests began in August as the result of the crackdown on demonstrators and opposition supporters. No criminal probes have been launched into the deaths.
The Investigative Committee on Friday has halted an inquiry into the death of Alexander Taraikovsky, a protester who died on Aug. 10. The government maintains he was killed by an explosive device that blew up in his hands, but his partner believed he was shot by police.
Video shot by an Associated Press journalist shows Taraikovsky with a bloodied shirt before collapsing on the ground. Several police are seen nearby and some walk over to where Taraikovsky is lying on the street and stand around him.
The video doesn't show why he fell to the ground or how his shirt became bloodied, but it also doesn't show that he had an explosive device that blew up in his hand, as the government has said.
The EU already has imposed sanctions on Lukashenko and several dozen officials over their role in the security crackdown launched after the contested election. Stano said Friday that the 27-nation bloc “stands ready to impose additional sanctions."
In a separate video message, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that EU member states have asked the bloc's executive to prepare a plan of economic support for Belarus.
“The European Union stands ready to mobilize all its economic means to support and accompany democratic change," she said. “Europe’s economic influence is immense. It's up to us to make a more strategic use of our economic clout. It's up to us to take clear our positions and to enforce them with stronger actions."