Police Round Up Opposition Coordinators In Belarus
By RFE/RL's Belarus Service August 24, 2020
MINSK -- Authorities in Belarus have stepped up detentions of prominent protest organizers and summoned others ahead of efforts to punish high-profile opposition leaders and dull weeks of unprecedented unrest.
The latest crackdown follows a weekend that saw signs that five-term President Alyaksandr Lukashenka was increasingly determined to stay in power despite public anger that drew at least 100,000 antigovernment demonstrators in Minsk on August 23.
Nobel Prize-winning writer Svetlana Alexievich, 72, became the latest member of a council for an exiled presidential challenger who insists this month's election was rigged to be targeted in the crackdown.
The ailing Alexievich said after the August 9 vote that "the authorities have declared war on their people."
She has now been summoned to appear before Belarus's Investigative Committee on August 26 as a witness in a criminal case on the establishment of Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya's seven-member Coordination Council, a spokesman for the council said.
An aide for a disqualified presidential hopeful, Viktar Babaryka, who was jailed before the election, told RFE/RL that Alexievich's health had prevented her from taking part in the council's work.
However, she was said to be in contact with the group.
The authorities detained two members of Tsikhanouskaya's Coordination Council outside of a tractor factory in Minsk earlier on August 24.
The Coordination Council says Volha Kovalkova, a top aide of Tsikhanouskaya, and strike organizer Syarhey Dyleuski were detained early on August 24 and accused of attempting to organize an unauthorized protest rally at the Minsk Tractor Works (MTZ).
The 30-year-old Dyleuski is a worker at the tractor factory, whose outspoken criticism of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has attracted international media attention as well as pressure from Belarusian police.
Kovalkova's associate, Dzyanis Sadouski, told RFE/RL that police informed the Coordination Council that the two were detained as part of an "administrative" case against them, and that they would most likely be fined.
Another member of the opposition Coordination Council, attorney Lilia Vlasova, was summoned to Investigative Committee headquarters on August 24 for questioning.
Their detentions come a day after more than 100,000 demonstrators packed the streets of the Belarusian capital on August 23 in a mass rally against Lukashenka -- the latest in more than two weeks of protests against an official presidential election tally that showed Lukashenka winning reelection by a landslide.
The protests have been growing in size amid a brutal postelection crackdown by Belarusian authorities and a heavy security presence in Minsk, with fresh warnings being issued to protesters during the weekend by the Belarusian army.
Dyleuski has said he started going through the giant MTZ factory's workshops to call for a strike after he witnessed injuries sustained by demonstrators who say they were tortured in police custody.
Hundreds of workers have joined Dyleuski to demand new elections and the release of political prisoners -- turning Dyleuski into the leader of a strike movement that has become a major challenge to Lukashenka's grip on power.
On August 21, Dyleuski and Tsikhanouskaya's lawyer Maksim Znak had been summoned to the headquarters of the Belarusian Investigative Committee as part of a criminal case in which the opposition Coordination Council is accused of attempting to illegally seize power.
That move came after Znak on August 21 filed a complaint with the Belarusian Supreme Court calling for the election results be ruled invalid amid widespread allegations that the vote count was fraudulent.
Lukashenka has ordered the military into full combat readiness, raising the prospect that the army may unleash a much-feared bloody crackdown to suppress the unprecedented wave of street protests across the country.
During the weekend, Lukashenka also said he would start closing factories on August 24 where there have been protests from workers who had previously formed his base of political support.
"If a factory is not working then let's put a lock on its gate from Monday, let's stop it," the Russian RIA Novosti news agency quoted Lukashenka as saying on August 22. "People will calm down and we will decide whom to invite [to work] next."
Lukashenka also expressed confidence that the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization would support him in any confrontation that he has with protest organizers in Belarus.
In neighboring Lithuania, where Tsikhanouskaya fled after the presidential election, the opposition leader met on August 24 with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun.
"She is a very impressive person and I can see why she is so popular in her country," Biegun said after the talks in Vilnius. "The purpose of the meeting was to listen, to hear what the thinking is of the Belarusian people, and to see what they are doing to obtain the right to self-determination," he added.
Biegun insisted that the United States "cannot and will not decide the course of events in Belarus," saying this was "the right of the Belarusian people."
The United States and the European Union have dismissed the Belarusian election as neither free nor fair and urged the authorities to engage in dialogue with the opposition.
Also on August 24, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Lukashenka "must, after this further weekend full of protests that we have seen, recognize the reality on the streets of his country but also the reality in the heads of the people in this country."
"So once again, our urgent call is not to use force and to uphold the rights of demonstrators," Maas said at a joint news conference with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Kyiv.
With reporting by Current Time, Reuters, AP, TASS, Interfax, The New York Times, and AFP
Copyright (c) 2020. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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