Nobel Laureate Warns Arrests Won’t Stop Belarus Protests

Nobel Laureate Warns Arrests Won’t Stop Belarus Protests
An aerial view of protesters during a demonstration on Aug.16, 2020 in Minsk, Belarus. (Getty Images/Getty Images)
The Associated Press

KYIV, Ukraine—Belarusian authorities on Sept. 9 detained one of the two last leading members of an opposition council who remained free, moving methodically to end a month of protests against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Lawyer Maxim Znak, a member of the Coordination Council created by the opposition to facilitate talks with the country’s leader of 26 years on a transition of power, was taken out of the council’s office by unidentified masked people, associate Gleb German said.

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

Unidentified people also attempted on Sept. 9 to enter the apartment of writer Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature, and now the only member of the council’s executive presidium still free in Belarus.

Diplomats from several European Union nations converged on Alexievich’s apartment in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, to try to prevent her detention.

The rising pressure on activists comes as Belarus marks a month of massive demonstrations protesting Lukashenko’s reelection to a sixth term in the Aug. 9 vote, which the opposition rejects as rigged. The protests that drew up to 200,000 on Sept. 6 cast an unprecedented challenge to the Belarusian leader’s iron-fist rule.

Lukashenko, 66, a former state farm director, has dismissed the opposition as Western stooges and rejected demands from the United States and the European Union to engage in a dialogue with protesters demanding his resignation. The U.S. and the EU have criticized the Belarusian election as neither free nor fair.

The Interior Ministry said that 121 people were detained in the capital and other cities on Sept. 8 for taking part in unsanctioned demonstrations. On Sept. 9, hundreds of protesters again formed “chains in solidarity” in several parts of Minsk.

The foreign ministers of the Nordic-Baltic nations, meeting in Estonia on Sept. 9, urged Belarusian authorities to end a police crackdown on post-election protests and the prosecution and forcible expulsions of activists.

“We demand the immediate release of all those detained on political grounds before and after the falsified presidential election,” Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said after the meeting.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said the members of the opposition council only want to allow the people of Belarus to “choose their future themselves. That’s the least they are asking, and the least they deserved.”

In August, Nobel laureate Alexievich was questioned by Belarusian investigators, who have opened a criminal investigation into members of the Coordination Council, accusing them of undermining national security. Several council members were arrested and others were forcibly expelled from the country.

Alexievich dismissed the official accusations, saying in a statement released on Sept. 9 that the council was seeking to defuse the crisis sparked by Lukashenko’s reelection to a sixth term by offering to foster a dialogue between authorities and protesters.

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

She warned that the arrests of opposition activists will 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 that raised.”

Speaking to reporters from her apartment, she said she doesn’t plan to leave the country despite the official pressure.

“This is terror against our own people,” she said.

Maria Kolesnikova, a leading member of the council, was detained on Sept. 7 along with two other council members and then driven early on Sept. 8 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 the authorities to expel her. She was put into custody on the Belarusian side of the border.

Kolesnikova’s father said investigators called him on Sept. 9 to say that she was moved to a jail in Minsk on charges of calling for undermining national security. She could face up to five years in prison if convicted.

Her father, Alexander Kolesnikov, said he admired his daughter’s courage.

“I’m very proud of her,” he said outside the prison where Kolesnikova was being held. “She said she would stay in Belarus and go until the end. I know her character.”

Kolesnikova’s lawyer, Lyudmila Kozak, who visited her in prison, said she was feeling relatively well. “The last few days have been tough for her,” she said.

Another of her lawyers, Ilya Salei, was arrested on Sept. 9, and authorities raided Kolesnikova’s apartment.

Several hundred women gathered in central Minsk on Sept. 9 in a show of solidarity with Kolesnikova. They held signs reading “Maria, you are my hero!” and “Maria, you are cooler than all Marvel characters,” a reference to comic book heroes. Police moved quickly to disperse the women, rounding up at least a dozen.

On Sept. 9, Lukashenko’s main election challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, visited Poland to receive the symbolic keys to a new Belarusian center in Warsaw from Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. Tsikhanouskaya left Belarus after the election, under official pressure.

“Poland is an open home for all Belarusians who need help,” Morawiecki said.

Tsikhanouskaya expressed gratitude for Poland’s support in this “difficult time for Belarus.”

“President Lukashenko has no mandate anymore, we cannot treat him as a president, we cannot entrust the future of our country in his hands,” she said, stressing that a new election is needed.

By Yuras Karmanau