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Belarusian authorities detain another leading opposition activist

Belarusian lawyer Maxim Znak, a member of the Coordination Council, was detained by unidentified people in ski masks.
Belarusian lawyer Maxim Znak, a member of the Coordination Council, was detained by unidentified people in ski masks, an associate says.
(Associated Press)

Belarusian authorities Wednesday detained one of the last leading members of an opposition council who remained free, but the country’s sole Nobel laureate warned that the arrests would not stop protests against President Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian leader dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” by some.

Lawyer Maxim Znak, a member of the Coordination Council, which was created by the opposition to facilitate talks with Lukashenko on a transition of power, was taken out of the council’s office by unidentified people in ski masks, his associate Gleb German said.

Znak had time only to text message “masks” before they took the phone away from him, German said.

Unidentified people were also trying to enter the apartment of writer Svetlana Alexievich, the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature and now the only member of the council’s executive presidium still free in Belarus.

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Last month, Alexievich was questioned by Belarusian investigators, who have opened a criminal investigation into members of the Coordination Council, accusing them of undermining national security by calling for a transfer of power from Lukashenko, who has ruled with an iron fist for 26 years. Several council members were arrested and others were forcibly expelled from the country.

Alexievich dismissed the official accusations, saying Wednesday that the council was seeking to defuse the crisis sparked by Lukashenko’s reelection to a sixth term Aug. 9 in an election seen by many as rigged. Alexievich said the council had offered to foster a dialogue between authorities and protesters.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators marched near the presidential residence in Belarus’ capital, calling for the nation’s authoritarian leader to resign.

“We weren’t preparing a coup — we were trying to prevent a split in our country,” she said in a statement.

She warned that the arrests of opposition activists would not end protests.

“They have stolen our country, and now they are trying to abduct the best of us,” Alexievich said. “But hundreds of others will come to replace those who have been taken away from our ranks. It wasn’t the Coordination Council that rebelled; it was the entire country.”

Speaking to reporters from her apartment, Alexievich said she did not plan to leave the country despite the official pressure. “This is terror against our own people,” she said.

Poll workers in Belarus are coming forward with details of vote-rigging in the Aug. 9 election that has kept President Alexander Lukashenko in power.

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Maria Kolesnikova, a leading member of the council, was detained Monday in the capital of Minsk along with two other council members and then driven early Tuesday to the border, where authorities told them to cross into Ukraine.

When they arrived in a no-man’s land between the countries, Kolesnikova ripped her passport into small pieces to make it impossible for Ukrainian authorities to allow her to enter.

Kolesnikova was put into custody on the Belarusian side of the border. Her father said investigators called him Wednesday to say that she was moved to a jail in Minsk.

Lukashenko has dismissed the opposition as Western stooges and rejected demands from the U.S. and the European Union to engage in a dialogue with protesters.

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After a brutal police crackdown in the initial days after the vote stirred international outrage and swelled the ranks of protesters, authorities in Belarus have switched to threats and selective arrests of activists and demonstrators to stamp out the unrest.

Police dispersed a few hundred demonstrators rallying in Minsk late Tuesday in solidarity with Kolesnikova and detained at least 45 protesters, according to the Viasna human rights center.

U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo issued a statement expressing concern about the attempt to expel Kolesnikova and warning that the United States and its allies were considering sanctions against Belarus.


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