Chernobyl anniversary march draws some 500 people

Demonstrators demanded an immediate halt to the ongoing construction of Belarus’ first-ever nuclear power plant.

Some 500 people took part in a traditional "Charnobylski Shlyakh" (Path of Chernobyl) demonstration staged in downtown Minsk on Saturday to mark the 28th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident.

Demonstrators demanded an immediate halt to the ongoing construction of Belarus’ first-ever nuclear power plant. According to a resolution adopted by participants, the Belarusian authorities should disclose entire information about the Chernobyl aftermath, stop all farming activity in contaminated areas and restore privileges for Chernobyl-affected people.

The resolution also demanded the withdrawal of Russian warplanes capable of carrying tactical nuclear weapons from the Belarusian territory, as well as the release of all political prisoners and general democratic reforms that would secure the observance of basic rights and the conduct of free and fair elections.

The demonstration began at 4:00 p.m. near the Kastrychnik movie theater amid heavy police presence. There were many plainclothesmen who filmed members of the crowd, while uniformed police stood near entrances to the Akademiya Navuk subway station.

The crowd displayed Belarus’ historically national white-red-white flags, emblems of opposition organizations and signs protesting the construction of the nuclear power plant in the Hrodna region.

At about 4:30 p.m., the crowd started walking in a procession along Independence Avenue and Surhanava Street to Peoples’ Friendship Park in Bangalore Square for a final rally.

On their way to the remote park, some demonstrators chanted “Zhyve Belarus!” (Long Live Belarus) and “Slava Ukraini!” (Glory to Ukraine).

Speaking at the rally, Belarusian Popular Front leader Alyaksey Yanukevich described the march as the “voice of free Belarus in defense of the Belarusian nation” and warned that the Chernobyl aftermath “continues killing Belarusians.”

“Today we have to eat food produced in contaminated areas, we don’t receive proper assistance, information is hushed up,” said the opposition politician.

The crowd also heard speeches by environmentalists who warned of the dangers of a nuclear power plant in Belarus.

The rally ended with a prayer ceremony in memory of Chernobyl victims that was led by a priest of the Belarusian Autocephalous Church. The crowd dispersed afterward.

According to human rights defenders, opposition activists Yury Rubtsow and Leanid Smowzh and their associate, identified as Mikalay, were grabbed by police after they broke away from the crowd and walked into a trolleybus. They were reportedly bundled into a police minibus and taken to a police station.

Mr. Rubtsow, a Homyel resident, was wearing a T-shirt that bore a "Lukashenka Go" message on its front side. A text written on the back of the white T-shirt said, “Arrest me. On what grounds? I am against Lukashenka.”

“I have prepared for my arrest,” Mr. Rubtsow told BelaPAN shortly before he was apprehended. “During my trial I will demand that the international community abolish the Ice Hockey World Championship in Minsk.”

The Charnobylski Shlyakh demonstration has been staged by opposition forces in Minsk every year since 1988. A crowd of up to 50,000 took part in the demonstration on the 10th anniversary of the 1986 Chernobyl accident, with participants overturning cars and clashing with riot police. Dozens were injured and more than 200 were arrested.

About 10,000 people took part in the demonstration on the 20th anniversary in 2006. In 2011, the Minsk city government banned a march along Surhanava Street and therefore the demonstration was limited to a rally near Bangalore Square with some 500 people in attendance.

Last year’s event drew some 800 demonstrators.