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Belarusian authorities crank up pressure on opposition, including Nobel-winning author

Pavel Latushko, former culture minister and Belarusian ambassador to France
Pavel Latushko, former Belarusian culture minister and ambassador to France, greets supporters on his way to the Belarusian Investigative Committee in Minsk on Tuesday.
(Sergei Grits / Associated Press)

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.

Among those called in for questioning was Belarus’ most famous writer, Svetlana Alexievich, who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature and joined an opposition council set up last week.

Courts in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, were considering charges against two members of the council, which was established to negotiate a transition of power following President Alexander Lukashenko’s declared landslide victory in an Aug. 9 election that critics say was rigged.

Lukashenko, whom some have dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” for his iron-fisted 26-year rule of the ex-Soviet nation, has firmly rebuffed offers of dialogue from the opposition Coordination Council and calls for a new election.

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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 into the council on charges of undermining national security, an allegation rejected by the council.

On Tuesday, Sergei Dylevsky, a council member who led the strike-organizing committee at the Minsk Tractor Plant, was handed a 10-day jail sentence. Another council member detained Monday, Olga Kovalkova, is also facing court hearings.

Pavel Latushko, a former culture minister and diplomat who joined the opposition council, was summoned for questioning. “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.”

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Latushko added that the council “isn’t attempting to take power. All we want is to try to find a solution for the political crisis.”

The protests in Belarus erupted after official election results gave Lukashenko 80% of the vote. Demonstrators were further 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, and accounts emerged of police beatings and abuse.

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

As EU rejects Belarus election result, the country’s beleaguered president looks to Moscow for backing.

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One of the two found dead, 28-year-old Nikita Krivtsov, was buried Tuesday in the city of Molodechno, about 45 miles northwest of Minsk. He went missing Aug. 12 after taking part in protests, and his body was found 10 days later.

His widow, Elena Krivtsevich, 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 said. “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 red-and-white opposition flag attended his funeral.

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European leaders say they do not accept the election results that handed authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko a sixth term by a landslide.

On Aug. 18, the body of 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 out against alleged fraud in the balloting. Local police said they found no evidence of a crime, but the death has raised suspicions of foul play.

The violent police crackdown on protesters fueled public anger, helping swell the number of protesters to 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 another challenge to Lukashenko, thousands of workers at major industrial plants across Belarus have gone on strike to demand his resignation.

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In a show of defiance, the 65-year-old president 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 had issued more than 40 court summons to protesters the previous day.

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

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

“The intimidation will not work,” she said. “We will not relent. We demand ... respect [of] our basic rights. We demand all political prisoners freed. We demand [a] stop [to] violence and intimidation by the authorities.”


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