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The Belarusian Central Elections Committee (CEC) on Friday announced its final results, giving embattled President Alexander Lukashenko 80.1% of the vote and opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya 10.1%.

Opposition groups claim the election was marred by fraud to keep Lukashenko in power, and protests began after exit polls showed Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 26 years, had won by a landslide.

Tikhanovskaya on Friday called for city mayors to organize peaceful protests this weekend, and asked her supporters to sign an online petition demanding a vote recount, with the presence of independent observers.

Lukashenko’s government had already been accused of responding to the protests with disproportionate force and violence, but the accusations of mistreating people behind bars has prompted renewed public outrage toward the government.

A woman named Olesya told CNN that she was arrested Sunday while walking down the street alongside her boyfriend in the capital, Minsk.

She said she was forced to strip naked alongside other women before being searched at a detention center. Olesya, who declined to give her last name for safety reasons, said she was then put in a small cell with 17 other women. All of them were given one water bottle and no food and forced to sleep on the floor or a small table.

The guards periodically cut off their access to water to silence them. They also denied medical assistance to one of the women, who had been injured by a rubber bullet.

Olesya said she spent around 14 hours inside the facility and was released after being forced to sign a paper with what she says were false charges against her. However, her boyfriend is still missing. She is very worried because men appear to be treated much worse than women, according to witness accounts.

“They would put four men in a 1.5 meter (5 foot) wide cell, three were standing but they made the fourth one crawl inside like a dog and stand on his knees,” said Olesya.

Olesya said she keeps coming back to the detention center both to get information about her partner and help others.

“It was very scary to wait outside, we could hear how they were beaten, they wailed, they screamed,” she said. “They stormed out of there with crazy eyes and half-conscious … they just ran in whatever direction the guards told them to and also told them not to approach us, who could help them get home, threatening they would put them back into prison.”

Authorities release 2,000 people

Belarus authorities have now released more than 2,000 people detained amid the ongoing protests, according to a Friday statement from its interior ministry.

The authorities were “concerned about the problem of overcrowding in places of detention,” the statement said. It suggested more people would be released. “We understand that it is not as fast as we would like. We are doing everything we can to resolve this situation,” the statement said.

Officials in Belarus say 6,700 people have been arrested and at least one person has been killed in the violent aftermath of Sunday’s presidential election which independent observers have criticized as neither free nor fair.

The interior ministry statement said Thursday was the “calmest day” this week with mostly peaceful protests.

Women in white become faces of Belarus protests as thousands are arrested after disputed election

At the Okrestina detention center in Minsk, hundreds have been gathering the past two days trying to locate their relatives and friends who were detained during the protests. Some were missing for days, according to people interviewed by CNN, as the authorities often do not disclose the location of detainees and forbid passing food, water or medication.

Ivan, who also did not wish to disclose his last name, told CNN that while he was searching for a friend at the detention center early Thursday, he witnessed a young man with broken arm and leg leave the building.

“People are being beaten up, tortured from the moment when they are detained in the streets,” Ivan said. “Then they are taken to local police station, beaten there and then they bring them here after a day or two, and the beatings and torture continue.”

Several other people have shared similar accounts of mistreatment while in government custody. Reports and pictures showing injuries sustained by the detainees have also appeared on social media. The Belarusian Association of Journalists said in a statement it recorded dozens of cases of violence against journalists, while several remain in detention.

The Russian independent news outlet published an account by one of its journalists, Nikita Telizhenko, who reported in Minsk and said he had spent 16 hours detained with multiple protesters grabbed from the streets who were forced to lie face down in pools of blood, with some men stacked on top of another.

“The most brutal beatings were happening all around: hits, screams, cries and shrieks coming from everywhere,” Telizhenko said. “I felt that some of the detained had broken bones — hands, legs, spines — because with the tiniest bit of movement they wailed in pain.”

Telizhenko says he was eventually released after an intervention from the Russian Embassy, which helped release and repatriate several journalists back to Russia.

Opposition leader calls for peaceful protests

“The results of the elections were approved by the decision of the commission,” said a statement on the official CEC website on Friday. “Alexander Grigorievich Lukashenko was elected President of the Republic of Belarus.”

Tikhanovskaya, who fled Belarus to Lithuania this week under what her associates said was pressure from Belarusian authorities, rejected the results and demanded a recount.

In a video statement posted Friday, Tikhanovskaya said: “We the supporters of change are the majority. There is documentary evidence of this … Where the commissions counted the votes honestly, my support ranged from 60 to 70%, and in Novaya Borovaya [neighborhood] 90%.”

“I ask all the mayors of the cities on August 15 and 16 to act as organizers of peaceful mass meetings in each city. New forms of peaceful protests appear on the streets of our cities, the chains of solidarity of women with flowers are absolutely not belligerent, they show the whole world that we, Belarusians, are open, honest people and we are against violence,” she added.

About 200 women march in solidarity with protesters injured in the latest rallies against the results of the country's presidential election in Minsk on Wednesday.

Tikhanovskaya announced she will create a coordination council with the hope of transferring power in Belarus, according to a statement on her party’s official Telegram channel.

The candidate is “ready for dialogue with the authorities,” the statement said, and has instructed her associates to accept applications for the nomination of Council members from organizations and associations of citizens.

“I ask you to join the coordination council. We really need your help and experience. We need your connections, contacts, expert advice and support. This coordinating council should include everyone who is interested in dialogue and the peaceful transfer of power — labor collectives, parties, trade unions and other civil society organizations,” Tikhanovskaya said in the statement

The opposition politician also appealed to the international community to and European countries to help organize a dialogue with the Belarus authorities.

In a statement on Twitter on Friday, Ursula Von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, said: “We need additional sanctions against those who violated democratic values or abused human rights in Belarus.”

She added, “I am confident today’s EU Foreign Ministers’ discussion will demonstrate our strong support for the rights of the people in Belarus to fundamental freedoms & democracy.”

The country’s Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said in a Friday statement that Belarus was ready for a “constructive and objective dialogue” with foreign partners regarding the disputed election result, after a call with his Swiss counterpart Ignazio Cassis.

“The Belarusian side noted its readiness for a constructive and objective dialogue with foreign partners on all issues related to the development of events in Belarus during the election campaign and after its completion,” the foreign ministry statement said.

The call was made “at the initiative of the Swiss side,” the statement adds.

Makei also expressed “gratitude” to the Swiss Foreign Minister, “for ensuring security and order during voting at the polling station at the Belarusian Embassy in Switzerland.”

Change of tactics

Despite the brutal crackdowns, the opposition has shown no sign of backing down. But it has changed strategy and tactics.

Thousands of mainly female peaceful demonstrators clutching white flowers and balloons lined the streets of Minsk Thursday as part of a more decentralized protest. Across the country, women are forming so-called “solidarity chains” to demand an end to the violence and that those detained be released. White ribbons, bracelets and shirts have become symbols of the movement, a color that initially representing the peacefulness of protesters and later morphed to reflect the old Belarusian flag — white with a red stripe — which can be seen hanging from many windows in the city.

One chain of protesters in Minsk was almost two miles (3.2 kilometers) long. Cars passing by often honked to show their support.

During an interview with CNN on Wednesday, Maria Kolesnikova — the last of the three women who became the faces of the country’s opposition still in the country — wore a white suit as she said she believed that the clashes over the disputed elections results signal the decline of Lukashenko’s presidency.

The trio — Kolesnikova, Tikhanovskaya and Veronika Tsepkalo — joined forces to take on Lukashenko in the election after several opposition candidates were either barred from running or jailed. Lukashenko dismissed the trio as “poor girls” in his annual state of the union address last week, and said he would not “give the country away.”

But the women appeared to enjoy significant support. Tikhanovskaya’s campaign rallies saw significant turnouts even in small Belarusian towns not known for their protest activity. About 63,000 people attended the largest event in Minsk in July — making it the biggest demonstration in the past decade.

The independent monitoring group “Honest People” said that according to its data, Tikhanovskaya — who was standing in for her jailed husband — had won in at least 80 polling stations across Belarus in Sunday’s vote, prompting many to demand a recount.

Tikhanovskaya and Tsepkalo say they were forced out of Belarus after the election because of threats from the government. Tikhanovskaya’s campaign told CNN on Sunday that nine people associated with the campaign had been arrested, and her decision to leave was made in part to free her peers.

‘I’m not a bloodthirsty person’

Lukashenko claimed earlier this week the protests were initiated by “foreign puppeteers” adding that the law enforcement will not back down and maintained he still enjoys widespread support.

However, the allegations of torture appear to have fueled public anger toward the government.

On Thursday, thousands gathered in Zhodzina, a town around 50 kilometers (31 miles) outside of Minsk, where one of the main detentions is located. Videos from the event showed people chant “Release!” and “Leave!” — a chant evidently directed at Lukashenko.

Some of the country’s military and police officers also appear to be turning against Lukashenko and showing support for the opposition. A video posted on Instagram by a man named Evgeny Novitski shows his brother — a former special forces officer — throwing his uniform into a trash can, saying he is not proud of his job anymore.

Major US diplomatic push to counter Russia may be in jeopardy amid Belarus unrest

“Hi all! I gave an oath to my people, and looking at what’s happening in Minsk right now, I can’t be proud of where I’ve been serving, and so, I can no longer keep this uniform at home,” the former officer says.

Another video posted by Belarusian TV station Nexta, shows a police officer named Ivan Kolos saying he refuses to follow “criminal orders.” He urged his colleagues to not point guns at peaceful people and be with them instead. He said he would take orders from Tikhanovskaya, not from Lukashenko.

The growing outcry has some prompted Belarusian authorities apologize late Thursday, a reversal from their previous rhetoric promising a severe response to protesters.

“I want to take full responsibility and apologize in a humane way to these people … I’m not a bloodthirsty person and I don’t want any violence,” Belarusian Interior Minister Yuri Karaev said in an interview with a state TV channel ONT.

Karaev also addressed the use of force against journalists by saying he is “against any violence against journalists, but this does not mean that you need to climb between the two sides, do not go into the thick of it!”

Lukashenko’s longtime ally and speaker of the Belarus senate Natalya Kochanova also came out with a televised statement on the President’s behalf urging Belarusians to “stop” and “cease self-destruction.”

“Less than a week ago, presidential elections were held in the Republic of Belarus. The people made their choice. But everything that happened next is an unprecedented attempt to destroy what we have always been proud of — our peaceful life,” Kochanova said.

“We all don’t need a fight, we don’t need a war. Minsk has always been quiet and calm,” Kochanova said. “The President heard the opinion of labor collectives and instructed to investigate all the facts of detentions that have occurred in recent days. Intensive work in underway today already more than a thousand people have been released under the obligation not to participate in unauthorized events.”

CNN’s Joshua Berlinger, Emma Reynolds and Isabel Tejera contributed to this report.

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A Former Government Minister Is Leading Calls By Tory MPs For Boris Johnson Not To Put The Country Back Into Lockdown

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The former minister Simon Clarke is leading calls by Tory MPs for the country not to be put back into a full lockdown amid a surge in coronavirus cases.

The Middlesborough MP made a “plea for proportionality” to Matt Hancock in his first contribution to the Commons since standing down as a local government minister earlier this month.

Speaking to PoliticsHome he said: “I’ve seen constituents commit suicide during the first lockdown. When you get those emails it’s quite sobering about the human cost about what it is that we’re demanding of people.

“And it made me reflect that we should lever do so lightly, and that frankly if there are intervening measures before we get to those – then I would strongly hope we would exhaust all of them.”

Speaking ahead of a statement by Boris Johnson on Tuesday, where he is expected to introduce tighter restrictions to prevent the spread of Covid-19, Mr Clarke warned: “there are very, very significant economic tradeoffs” to such measures.

He is calling for a “graduated tradeoff” of freedom “rather than fire off all our artillery now”, adding it will be “a very long winter if we moved into lockdown now”.

Although he is in favour of local lockdowns he added: “But I just think a suite of national measures which set the economy even further back, and really do impose massive restrictions on people’s quality of life, are to be avoided as such time as they are totally unavoidable.”

Mr Clarke urged his former colleagues to “maintain fundamental liberty for people at this stage of autumn” after suggestions it may take six months to tackle the virus.

With the ‘rule of six’ only recently introduced he called for “other rules kick in before preventing households to mix”, saying “things which cut across basic human freedoms and basic human needs are to be avoided until they are an absolute last-ditch option”.

A growing number of Tory MPs have also expressed concern over what they see as a growing lack of parliamentary scrutiny over Coronavirus legislation. 

Peter Bone MP told PoliticsHome: “I think there’s a growing number of MPs who think you shouldn’t be making these significant regulations without parliamentary approval.”

He said the powers were handed over via emergency legislation but it was when there wasn’t “a functioning Parliament”, at the time, and MPs should not get a chicane to defat, amend and vote on them.

As an example he said the “rule of six” would likely have still been passed, but perhaps amended not to include children or a month-long sunset clause.

Asked whether Number 10 had been ignoring its own MPs, Mr Bone said: “Well I think they get used to it, they got used to in an emergency just doing it ,and they’ve continued. There is a drift within government to a more presidential type of government.

Clarke’s call to avoid lockdown was backed up in the Commons by the ex-transport secretary Chris Grayling, who said he did not believe there is a case for a new national lockdown.

He told the Commons: “Given the huge consequences of this virus for people in our communities on their mental health, particularly the younger generation who are paying a very heavy price, can I say to him that given those regional variations – and in the full knowledge of all the pressures that he is facing – I do not believe the case for further national measures has yet been made.”

Mr Hancock replied: “He’s absolutely right that there are some parts of the country where the number of cases is still thankfully very low and so the balance between what we do nationally and what we do locally is as important as the balance in terms of what we do overall.”

Another former minister – Sir Edward Leigh – said public consent for lockdowns is “draining away”.

Addressing the House of Commons, he said: “The trouble with authoritarianism is that’s profoundly inimical to civil liberties, it is also increasingly incompetent, it relies on acquiescence and acquiescence for lockdowns, particularly national ones, is draining away.

“If you tell a student not to go to a pub, they will congregate in rooms, even worse.”

Mr Hancock said in his reply: “As a Conservative, I believe in as much freedom as possible consistent with not harming others.”

But fellow Tory MP Pauline Latham called for more Parliamentary scrutiny of such decisions, saying: “Could I remind the Secretary of State, I think he’ll be going to a Cobra meeting tomorrow, could he explain to the Prime Minister that we actually live in a democracy not a dictatorship and we would like a debate in this House?”

Mr Hancock replied: “Yes, there absolutely will be a debate in this House on the measures… that we have to use. We do have to move very fast.”

The chairman of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers, Sir Graham Brady, then asked the minister if: “Balancing the measures to tackle Covid with the other health consequences such as cancer patients going undiagnosed or not treated in time and the economic and social consequences is a political judgment?”

He added: “And does he further agree with me that political judgments are improved by debate and scrutiny?”

Mr Hancock replied: “Yes I do and I do come to this despatch box as often as possible. I’m very sorry that I wasn’t able to come on Friday for Friday’s decision but the House wasn’t sitting.”

He added: “The more scrutiny the better is my attitude.”

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GE: Industrial giant will stop building coal-fired power plants

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In a dramatic reversal, one of the world’s biggest makers of coal-fired power plants is to exit the market and focus on greener alternatives.

US industrial giant General Electric said it would shut or sell sites as it prioritised its renewable energy and power generation businesses.

It comes ahead of a US Presidential election in which the candidates hold starkly different views on coal.

NGO the Natural Resources Defense Council said the move was “about time”.

GE has said in the past it would focus less on fossil fuels, reflecting the growing acceptance of cleaner energy sources in US power grids.

But just five years ago, it struck its biggest ever deal – paying almost £10bn for a business that produced coal-fuelled turbines.

‘Attractive economics’

In a statement, the firm suggested the decision had been motivated by economics.

Russell Stokes, GE’s senior vice president, said: “With the continued transformation of GE, we are focused on power generation businesses that have attractive economics and a growth trajectory.

“As we pursue this exit from the new build coal power market, we will continue to support our customers, helping them to keep their existing plants running in a cost-effective and efficient way with best-in-class technology and service expertise.”

US President Donald Trump has championed “beautiful, clean coal” at a time when other developed countries are turning away from polluting fossil fuels.

In a bid to revive the struggling US industry, Mr Trump has rolled back Obama-era standards on coal emissions. But it has not stopped the decline as cheaper alternatives such as natural gas, solar and wind gain market share.

GE said it would continue to service existing coal power plants, but warned jobs could be lost as a result of its decision.

The firm is already cutting up to 13,000 job cuts at GE Aviation, which makes jet engines, due to the pandemic.

In a tweet, the Natural Resources Defense Council said: “Communities and organizers have been calling on GE to get out of coal for years. This is an important and long overdue step in the right direction to protect communities’ health and the environment.”

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China’s Xinjiang government confirms huge birth rate drop but denies forced sterilization of women

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The Xinjiang government sent CNN the six-page fax in response to questions for an article published in July that documented a campaign of abuse and control by Beijing targeting women from the Uyghur minority, a Muslim ethnic group numbering more than 10 million people. The fax didn’t arrive until September 1, a month after the story was published.

But CNN’s reporting found that some Uyghur women were being forced to use birth control and undergo sterilization as part of a deliberate attempt to push down birth rates among minorities in Xinjiang.

The article was based on a report by Adrian Zenz, a senior fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation known for his research on Xinjiang, who quoted official Chinese documents showing a surge in the number of sterilizations performed in the region — from fewer than 50 per 100,000 people in 2016 to almost 250 per 100,000 people in 2018.
Zenz said that these actions fell under the United Nations definition of “genocide” specifically “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.”

In its response, the Xinjiang government strongly denied the claims of genocide, arguing instead that the Uyghur population has been “growing continuously” during the past decade and that Zenz’s report was not “in line with the real situation in Xinjiang.”

According to the government, the population of Xinjiang rose by more than 3 million people, or almost 14%, between 2010 and 2018, with the Uyghur population growing faster than the region’s average rate.

“The rights and interests of Uyghur and other ethnic minorities have been fully protected,” the response said. “The so-called ‘genocide’ is pure nonsense.”

Birth rate plunges

But the government didn’t dispute the rise in sterilizations or the gap in the ratio of new intrauterine devices (IUDs) between Xinjiang and the rest of mainland China. While IUD implants have plunged in China overall, falling to just 21 per 100,000 people in 2018, in Xinjiang they are becoming increasingly common.

According to local government statistics, there were almost 1,000 new IUD implants per 100,000 people in Xinjiang in 2018, or 80% of China’s total for that year.

The Xinjiang government said in its response that the birth rate in the region had dropped from 15.88 per 1,000 people in 2017 to 10.69 per 1,000 people in 2018. The fax said that the drop was due to “the comprehensive implementation of the family planning policy.”

Up until 2015, the Chinese government enforced a “one-child” family planning policy countrywide, which allowed most urban couples no more than one baby. Ethnic minorities, such as the Uyghur people, were typically allowed to have up to three but Xinjiang expert Zenz said that families from these groups often had many more children.
When China officially began the two-child policy in January 2016, Uyghur citizens living in cities were limited to two children for the first time as well — their rural counterparts could still have up to three.

The Xinjiang government attributed the sudden drop in population to Beijing’s family planning policies finally being properly implemented in the region after 2017.

“In 2018, the number of newborns decreased by approximately 120,000 compared with 2017, of which about 80,000 were because of better implementation of family planning policy in accordance with law, according to estimates by the health and statistics department,” the response to CNN said. The government insisted that those who complied with the family planning policies did so voluntarily.

The government attributed the remaining 40,000 fewer babies to increased education and economic development, resulting in fewer children in the region. The Xinjiang government did not include the 2019 birth figures for the region.

“As a part of China, Xinjiang implements family planning policies in accordance with national laws and regulations, and has never formulated and implemented family planning policies for a single ethnic minority,” the response said.

But Zenz pointed out that changes to the natural birth rate should take place over several years or even a decade, not in the space of 12 to 36 months.

In reference to the government’s claims that compliance with the family planning policies were voluntary, Zenz questioned how likely it was that “17 times more women spontaneously wanted to be sterilized.”

“Han Chinese academics from Xinjiang have themselves written that the Uyghurs resist any type of contraceptive (and especially sterilization),” he said in a statement to CNN.

In their fax, the Xinjiang government also attacked Zenz personally, saying that he was “deliberately fabricating lies” and accused him of being a religious fanatic who believed he was “led by God” to oppose China.

Zenz dismissed the Chinese government’s allegations, saying they were “resorting to personal attacks” because they couldn’t disprove his research. “Far more egregious than these personal attacks on me are Beijing’s smears against the Uyghur witnesses,” he said in a statement.

Attacks on women

The Xinjiang government also zeroed in on claims made by two female Uyghurs quoted in CNN’s article — Zumrat Dawut and Gulbakhar Jalilova.

Dawut said she had been forced into sterilization by the local government in Xinjiang when she went to a government office to pay a fine for having one too many children. Dawut also said she had been in a detention center in Xinjiang for about three months from March 2018.

In their response, the government said that Dawut had never been inside a voluntary “education and training center,” the name used by the Chinese government for the alleged detention centers, and that she had signed a form agreeing to the procedure known as tubal ligation.

In CNN’s article, Jalilova, who is a citizen of Kazakhstan and an ethnic Uyghur, said she was held in a detention center for 15 months after being arrested suddenly and without explanation during a business trip to Xinjiang in May 2017.

Jalilova claimed she suffered humiliation and torture while inside the camps and said she was raped by one of the guards.

Uyghur exile Gulbakhar Jalilova who says she suffered sexual abuse while she was held in detention centers in Xinjiang.

The Xinjiang government confirmed Jalilova’s claims that she had been detained for 15 months from May 2017, alleging she was arrested “on suspicion of aiding terrorist activities.” In August 2018 she was released on bail, after which she returned to Kazakhstan.

In their statement, the government denied that Jalilova had been raped or tortured, saying that all of her “rights were fully guaranteed” and the staff who were in her cell could prove it.

When asked to respond to the Chinese government’s statement, Jalilova stood by her claims and demanded the Xinjiang authorities provide their proof. “Why don’t they show a video? Why don’t they show a photo during my time in prison showing that I was well fed and not beaten. The cameras were working 24 hours,” she said.

“I am a citizen of Kazakhstan, what right did they have to detain me for a year and a half?”

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