Belarus police arrested 15 protesters Thursday who interfered with the demolition of 70 crosses at an unofficial memorial site where tens of thousands of victims were murdered during Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s communist rule.
Forest workers used bulldozers to remove 70 crosses in the Kurapaty woods, not far from the Belarussian capital of Minsk, at the site where Soviet secret police carried out mass executions during Stalin’s reign of terror.
Though officials claim 30,000 victims are buried in these woods, historians estimate as many as 200,000 people were shot there by the secret police during the 1930s and 1940s, BBC News reported.
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in charge of the eastern European nation since 1994, criticized political opponents who placed crosses on the site. Lukashenko, dubbed "Europe’s last dictator" by some Western officials, maintained symbols and structures of Stalinist Soviet rule in the country.
"We're going to restore order at Kuropaty, so that there are no demonstrations with crosses around the perimeter," Lukashenko said in a public meeting last month, according to BBC News. Not all the crosses that were part of the unofficial memorial were demolished.
Fifteen activists were taken into custody by Belarusian police for interfering with the removal of some crosses, prompting an outcry from the president’s political rivals. Western leaders and human rights organizations have condemned Lukashenko before for suppressing his opposition.
"It's as if Satan came to Kuropaty. No Christian in the world raises a hand against a holy cross!" MP Anna Kanopatskaya wrote in Russian on Facebook after witnessing the demolition. "All, ALL those who committed this blasphemy today will bring misfortune on themselves."
The Belarussian government has not erected an official memorial in the Kurapaty woods even though the bodies of those shot by the Soviet secret police began to be exhumed after the site’s discovery in 1988, BBC News reported.
"At the same time we are removing the illegally erected crosses," a forestry manager, Alexander Mironovich, told the state news agency Belta of the "renovation work" on the property. "They are disappearing in the place where fencing is going up."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.