Belarusian authorities on Thursday opened a criminal probe against opposition activists who set up a council to negotiate the transition of power amid massive protests challenging the extension of the 26-year rule of the country’s authoritarian leader in a vote the opposition saw as rigged.
President Alexander Lukashenko has dismissed the protesters as Western puppets and threatened opposition leaders with criminal charges. Following up on his statement, prosecutors opened a criminal investigation against the opposition activists on charges of undermining national security, and a leading opposition figure reported being threatened with arrest.
The 65-year-old Belarusian leader dismissed the European Union’s criticism of the Aug. 9 vote and told its leaders to mind their own business.
The EU’s leaders on Wednesday rejected the official results of the election that showed Lukashenko won 80 per cent of the vote and expressed solidarity with protesters. The EU said it’s preparing sanctions against Belarusian officials responsible for the brutal post-election police actions.
During the first four days of protests, police detained almost 7,000 people and injured hundreds with rubber bullets, stun grenades and clubs. At least three protesters died.
The crackdown fuelled massive outrage and swelled the ranks of protesters, forcing authorities to change tactics and stop breaking up crowds that grew to an unprecedented 200,000 on Sunday.
Protests continued Thursday in the capital of Minsk and other Belarusian cities for the 12th straight day.
After standing back for days, police again beefed up their presence on the streets of Minsk on Wednesday, blocking access to some government buildings and also deploying in numbers outside major factories where workers have been on strike since Monday.
The industrial action that has engulfed major factories across the country cast a tough challenge to Lukashenko, who had relied on blue-collar workers as his core support base.
In a bid to stop the strike from spreading, Lukashenko on Wednesday said the participants would face dismissal and ordered law enforcement agencies to protect factory managers from opposition pressure.
International community calls for more pressure
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke of “serious flaws” in Belarus’s presidential election, adding that the U.S. supports international efforts to independently look into the country’s electoral irregularities.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said international pressure will help Belarusians secure new elections faster.
“I think their fight will last a while but that it will be shorter, that they will be able to count on victory much faster … the stronger the international pressure,” he told a news conference on Thursday.
Call for new vote
Hundreds of state television employees have also gone on strike, shaking the government’s control of the media.
The Belarusian leader also warned members of the Co-ordination Council, which held its first meeting Wednesday, that they could face criminal responsibility for their attempt to create “parallel power structures.”
The council called for a new presidential vote organized by newly formed election commissions and demanded an investigation into the crackdown on protests and compensation for the victims.
The Belarusian Prosecutor General’s office said the creation of the council violated the constitution, and it opened a criminal inquiry against its founders on charges of threatening national security.
“The creation and the activities of the Co-ordination Council are aimed at seizing power and inflicting damage to the national security,” Prosecutor General Alexander Konyuk said.
The council members have rejected the accusations and insisted that their actions have been in full conformity with Belarusian law.
The opposition body consists of top associates of Lukashenko’s main challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, as well as rights activists and representatives of striking workers.
It also includes the country’s most famous author, Svetlana Alexievich, who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature.
A leading council member, Pavel Latushko, who was fired earlier this week for siding with protesters, said he had received threats and could move to Russia to avoid being arrested. The façade of his house in Minsk was splashed with red paint overnight.
Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old former English teacher who moved to neighbouring Lithuania after the election, under pressure from the Belarusian authorities, met Thursday with Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis, who promised to help “achieve free and fair elections in Belarus.”
“We spoke about these tests she faced during the election campaign and the huge responsibility she had taken on, about her life in Lithuania, personal safety and the safety of her family,” the Baltic country’s leader said on Facebook, where he also posted a photo of them together.