Maladzyechna, Belarus — For more than a week, friends and family didn’t hear a word from Nikita Krivtsov. Then the 28-year-old’s body was found in a wooded area outside Minsk, hanging from a tree. Police said there was no evidence of foul play, indicating it was a suicide.
But at his funeral on Tuesday, where hundreds gathered outside the capital city in his hometown of Maladzyechna, friends and relatives blamed the police for killing him, calling it an act of reprisal for Krivtsov daring to stand up to the government of President.
“I’m 100% certain that he died at the hands of police,” said Alexander Novik, a friend of Krivtsov. “If they can do it to him, I fear they can do it to anyone.”
For more than two weeks protesters have demanded the Belarusian president, known as “Europe’s last dictator,” step down. The demonstrations and labor strikes started when Lukashenko claimed to have won 80% of the votes in August 9 elections widely seen as rigged.
The government has responded violently. Human rights groups have documented numerous instances of police brutality against protesters and torture against those held in custody for days. Several protesters have died from injuries sustained at the hands of police.
It was still unknown on Wednesday whether Krivtsov was detained by police at any point, as his loved ones suspect.
As pallbearers lowered his casket into the ground, friends and family told CBS News that Krivtsov was actively involved in the protests, which at times have drawn more than 200,000 people onto the streets of Minsk.
Krivtsov had been videotaped holding up a Belarusian opposition flag as he faced off with a row of Minsk riot police in a clip which has since gone viral. An officer is seen in the video using a camcorder to record protesters, so they can be identified later.
“That’s why they killed him,” Gleb Levin, a family friend of the victim, told CBS News. “Have you seen our president? Twenty-six years in power is too much. We’re becoming North Korea here.”
While the large scale protests have been focused in Minsk, smaller, sometimes spontaneous gatherings have swept across the former Soviet republic.
Earlier this week shoppers at a Minsk mall broke out in unison with a rendition of an old national anthem, which has become a new anthem for the opposition.
Last Sunday, state media showed the president circling above protesters in a helicopter and calling them “rats.” Later he was seen wearing a bullet-proof vest and brandishing an assault rifle as he applauded the security forces for their work.
Security forces have now rounded up some leading members of the opposition, including Olga Kovalkova, spokeswoman for the opposition’s leader who is currently exiled in neighboring Lithuania. CBS News spoke to Kovalkova shortly before her arrest and asked what would happen to her.
“Our voice cannot be ignored,” she said. “Everything will be fine with me.”
She was sentenced on Tuesday to 10 days in prison for unauthorized protests.
On Wednesday, one of Belarus’ most famous figures, Nobel Prize-winning author Svetlana Alexievich, was questioned by police amid fears that she, too, could be arrested for her involvement in the opposition.
She emerged from the Investigative Committee in Minsk after questioning, however, telling reporters she’d invoked her right not to incriminate herself
“The more we stay together, the stronger we will be, and the greater chance we will have of making the authorities talk to us,” she said, according to Reuters.
Indeed, the government’s efforts to scare protesters into staying home have largely backfired. Hundreds of people joined Krivtsov’s funeral procession, while plainclothes police officers watched from nearby.
“Despite threats from the president, people still come out,” opposition politician Andrei Dmitriev told CBS News at the funeral. “I want to live in a country where the government is not an enemy but a friend. Lukashenko, please leave us.”