Belarusian authorities crank up pressure on opposition

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Authorities in Belarus on Tuesday steadily cranked up the pressure on protesters pushing for the resignation of the country’s authoritarian 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.

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

On Tuesday, council members Sergei Dylevsky and Olga Kovalkova were each sentenced to 10 days in jail on charges of organizing 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,” 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.

Lukashenko has dismissed the protesters who have been demonstrating for over 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.

“The Coordination Council isn’t attempting to take power,” 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 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.”

“Who will tolerate that?” she said.

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

The bodies of two other opposition supporters also were found hanged in forests. Police declared that the deaths were suicides, but the opposition has contested the claim.

One of them, the 28-year-old Nikita Krivtsov, was buried Tuesday in the city of Molodechno, about 70 kilometers (some 45 miles) northwest of Minsk. He went missing on Aug. 12 after taking part in protests and his body was found ten days later.

His widow, Elena Krivtsova, said she has sent a formal request to the Investigative Committee, the nation’s top investigative agency, to launch a criminal inquiry into his death.

“I don’t believe that Nikita could have done it himself,” she told the AP. “He was a cheerful and positive man, he liked his daughter very much, had a good job and a decent salary. He never expressed any thoughts about suicide.”

Hundreds of opposition supporters waving the opposition red-and-white flag attended his funeral.

On Aug. 18, the body of another opposition supporter, Konstantin Shishmakov, was found hanged in a forest in western Belarus. Shishmakov, who headed a small military history museum in Volkovysk near the Polish border, was a member of an election commission who spoke against alleged falsifications in the Aug. 9 balloting. Local police said they found no evidence of a crime, but the death has raised opposition suspicions of foul play.

The police crackdown fueled public anger, helping swell the number of protesters that reached an unprecedented peak of about 200,000 for two consecutive Sundays. The huge crowds forced the government to back off and allow the demonstrations to go largely unhindered for the past two weeks.

In a show of defiance, the 65-year-old Belarusian leader toted an assault rifle as he arrived at his residence by helicopter on Sunday while protesters rallied nearby.

Following Lukashenko’s directives last week to get tougher on protesters, police started beefing up their presence on the streets and cordoning off some areas in the Belarusian capital. They detained at least five protesters in Minsk and another five elsewhere in the country on Monday after days of inaction, a signal that the authorities might resort to force again to end the protests.

The Interior Ministry said Tuesday that it issued over 40 court summons to protesters the previous day.

Police in Minsk again detained several protesters on Tuesday.

As the authorities toughened their stance, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition challenger in the Aug. 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 Aug. 9 vote.

Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old former English teacher who moved to Lithuania a day after the vote following official pressure, said she was ready for dialogue with Lukashenko’s government.

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

Tsikhanouskaya met Monday with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun in Vilnius, thanking the U.S. for supporting the Belarusian people.

On Tuesday, Biegun discussed the situation in Belarus with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow. The U.S. Embassy spokesperson, Rebecca Ross, said on Twitter that Biegun “condemned the use of violence against the Belarusian people and expressed support for Belarus’ sovereignty and the people’s right to self-determination.”

The United States and the EU have dismissed the Belarus election as neither free nor fair and urged the authorities to engage in a dialogue with the opposition. Russia, which has a union agreement with Belarus envisaging close political, economic and military ties, has stood by Lukashenko and warned the West against interfering in Belarus’ affairs.

Speaking after the talks, Lavrov said he warned Biegun that certain “circles in Poland and Lithuania” are unhappy with normalization of the situation in Belarus and are eager to foment violence.

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Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed.

Follow AP’s coverage of Belarus at https://www.apnews.com/Belarus

Copyright © 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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