Belarusian authorities crank up pressure on opposition

Belarusian authorities crank up pressure on opposition
Protesters gather at at Independence Square in Minsk (Sergei Grits/AP)

Authorities in Belarus on Tuesday cranked up the pressure on protesters pushing for the resignation of the country’s leader, jailing several opposition activists, summoning others for questioning and selectively ordering dozens of demonstrators to appear in court.

Nevertheless, the protests continued.

Courts in Minsk handed 10-day sentences to two members of a council that opposition activists established last week to negotiate a transition of power, following President Alexander Lukashenko’s winning a sixth term in an election that critics contend was rigged.

Mr Lukashenko has firmly rebuffed offers of dialogue from the Co-ordination Council, which rejects the official results of the August 9 vote that extended his 26-year rule.

Opposition supporters light their phones as they gather at Independence Square in Minsk (Sergei Grits/AP)

On Tuesday, council members Sergei Dylevsky and Olga Kovalkova were each sentenced to 10 days in jail on charges of organising an unsanctioned protest.

Pavel Latushko, a former culture minister and diplomat who joined the opposition council, was summoned for questioning over his role in the opposition body.

“They are trying to push me out of the country,” Mr Latushko told The Associated Press. “I have been threatened with arrest and prison violence, but I’m not planning to leave Belarus.”

Belarus’ most famous writer, Svetlana Alexievich, who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature, also received a summons after joining the council.

Mr Lukashenko has dismissed the protesters who have been demonstrating for more than two weeks as Western puppets and threatened the council members with criminal charges for attempting to create what he described as a parallel government.

Prosecutors opened a criminal inquiry on charges of undermining national security, an allegation rejected by the council.

Supporters with old Belarusian national flags gather in the rain at Independence Square (Sergei Grits/AP)

“The Co-ordination Council isn’t attempting to take power,” Mr Latushko said. “All we want is to try to find a solution for the political crisis.”

On Tuesday, hundreds of teachers and academic researchers rallied in Minsk in a show of solidarity with protesters as the demonstrations entered their 17th day.

As evening came, several thousand rallied on central Independence Square, despite heavy rain, to press for Mr Lukashenko’s resignation.

“He managed to set everyone against himself,” said 30-year-old sales clerk Tatyana Gubarevskaya who turned up for the rally with her husband.

“I supported Lukashenko in the past, but now I see that his authority hinges entirely on the police, he has stopped hearing his people.”

Lyudmila Krylovich, a conductor at the Belarus State Philharmonic, said that “Lukashenko behaves like a feudal lord who sees people as his property”.

A woman walks past police vehicles during a rally by Belarusian school teachers and Belarusian opposition supporters (Sergei Grits/AP)

“Who will tolerate that?” she said.

The protests erupted after official results handed Lukashenko a landslide victory with 80% of the vote.

They were galvanised by a brutal crackdown in the initial days after the election, when police detained nearly 7,000 people.

Hundreds were injured when officers fiercely dispersed peaceful protesters with rubber bullets, stun grenades and clubs. At least three people died.

As the authorities toughened their stance, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition challenger in the August 9 vote, reaffirmed her push for a new presidential election in a speech to the European Union delivered via video-link from Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.

Belarus’ Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected her appeal to annul the results of the vote.

Ms Tsikhanouskaya, 37, who moved to Lithuania a day after the vote following official pressure, said she was ready for dialogue with Mr Lukashenko’s government.

“The intimidation will not work,” she said. “We will not relent.”

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