Belarus President, Alexander Lukashenko, whose re-election in a disputed poll last month led to weeks of mass protests, has been inaugurated for a sixth term in an unannounced ceremony.
The ceremony which would normally have been publicised as a major state occasion, was held without publicity following Lukashenko’s claim of a landslide victory in the Aug. 9 election.
The opposition, which has staged more than six weeks of mass protests demanding his resignation, denounced the inauguration as illegitimate and called for more demonstrations.
The United States and European Union are drawing up sanctions against officials involved in the election and a subsequent crackdown by the security forces.
The official news agency, Belta said Lukashenko placed his right hand on a copy of the constitution and swore the oath of office at a ceremony attended by several hundred people.
The 66-year-old President said the country needed safety and consensus “on the brink of a global crisis”, an apparent reference to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I cannot, I have no right to abandon the Belarusians,” he said.
He also promised to “faithfully serve the people of the Republic of Belarus, respect and protect the rights and freedoms of the person and of the citizen” and defend the constitution.
Exiled Belarusian opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya immediately denounced the abrupt swearing-in of President Alexander Lukashenko for a sixth term.
“His secret inauguration is an attempt to seize power. It also means that after today Alexander Lukashenko is neither a legal nor a legitimate head of Belarus. The only solution is free and fair elections”, she said in a speech to the parliamentary assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Protesters carrying red-and-white opposition flags began gathering in small groups in the capital, including outside at least three universities.
An opposition politician, Pavel Latushko, said the swearing-in was like a secret “thieves’ meeting”.
“Where are the jubilant citizens? Where is the diplomatic corps?” he posted on social media. “It is obvious that Alexander Lukashenko is exclusively the president of the OMON (riot police) and a handful of lying officials.”
He also called for “an indefinite action of civil disobedience”.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister, Linas Linkevicius said on Twitter: “Such a farce. Forget elections…His illegitimacy is a fact with all the consequences that this entails”.
Germany reiterated that it did not recognise Lukashenko as president and called for EU sanctions to be agreed as soon as possible.
He has however so far withstood the protests with backing from his ally, President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov said the swearing-in was “absolutely the sovereign decision of the Belarusian leadership”.
The United Nations has agreed to step up monitoring of reported human rights abuses in Belarus. Rights investigator Anais Marin said more than 10,000 people had been “abusively arrested” since the election, with more than 500 reports of torture and thousands “savagely beaten”.
Belarus authorities have said the police are humane and professional, and have declined to comment on specific allegations of abuses.