Tsikhanouskaya Urges Belarusian Opposition To ‘Remain Peaceful’ Amid Fears Another Leader Detained

Map of Belarus and Environs, adapted from images at cia.gov

(Article text ©2020 RFE/RL, Inc., Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – rferl.org – Sept. 9, 2020 – article text also appeared at rferl.org/a/belarusian-opposition-fears-one-of-last-presidium-members-detained/30828668.html)

The exiled leader of Belarus’s reinvigorated opposition to five-term President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has urged protesters at home to “remain peaceful” despite an intensifying crackdown that featured another suspected abduction by regime forces on September 9.

Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s latest plea came during a visit to Warsaw, Poland, and with indications swirling that Belarusian masked men had quietly taken away lawyer Maksim Znak and might be trying to do the same to Nobel Prize-winning writer and Lukashenka critic Svetlana Alexievich.

“The protests must remain peaceful,” Tsikhanouskaya said in an address at Warsaw University. “I think it is impossible to fight violence and give violence,” she said during a speech at Warsaw University.

Alyaksandr Lukeshenko file photo, adapted from image at usembassy.govLukashenka, who has led the country for 26 years and claimed victory in a disputed presidential election on August 9, has refused to meet with the opposition or agree to a new election.

A month of regular protests has ensued, including demonstrations from some of the workers and other prominent groups the strongman president has kept in tight lockstep in the past.

Lukashenka told Russian media in an extended interview on September 8 that “maybe I overstayed a bit.”

It was his strongest acknowledgement so far of any mistake on his part but was followed by a vow to stay on as president.

Torture, Beatings

His postelection clampdown has included thousands of arrests, beatings and other mistreatment of peaceful protesters, and expulsions of foreign journalists.

UN rights experts have acknowledged receiving reports of hundreds of cases of torture, beatings, and abuse by police.

Hours before Tsikhanouskaya’s address, colleagues of one of the last free members of the Belarusian opposition’s top organizing body still in the country reported signs that Znak had been snatched by authorities operating with no apparent public accountability.

Znak, a lawyer, was one of two members of the Coordination Council’s presidium who had managed to continue speaking out from inside the country.

The other is the ailing Alexievich, whose long-running health problems have limited her activities.

Swedish television quoted Alexievich’s Swedish translator as saying that Alexievich told her that “men in black clothes and masks” tried to enter Alexievich’s home on September 9 but that the writer had not been detained.

Sweden’s ambassador to Belarus said Swedish and other diplomats had gathered with Alexievich at her apartment in the capital.

“She has signaled that she is worried and is now in the company of, among others, our embassy’s second in charge and some other ambassadors,” the ambassador, Christina Johannesson, told Swedish television SVT.

Earlier in the day, Alexievich issued a statement via the Belarusian PEN Center on September 9 saying, “There are no longer any of my like-minded friends in the presidium of the Coordinating Council. Everyone is either in jail or thrown abroad. Today they took, the last, Maksim Znak.”

“[T]he best of us are being kidnapped,” she said.

Alexievich rejected the notion, promoted by Lukashenka and his prosecutors, that the opposition was “preparing a coup” and instead said they sought “to prevent a split in the country” and instead wanted “a dialogue to begin in society.”

She appealed to “the Russian intelligentsia” to speak out against Belarusian injustice and on behalf of “a small, proud people being trampled.”

Znak’s associates told the independent Russian-language Tut.by news website on September 9 that he failed to log on for a planned interview via Internet from the headquarters of jailed opposition politician Viktar Babaryka earlier in the day.

Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya spoke via videolink to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on September 8.

When they called his phone, they said, Znak said hurriedly that “Somebody came here” and hung up. Then a text message came from his phone that said only “Masks,” after which his telephone went unanswered.

Babaryko’s press service later said an eyewitness reported seeing the 39-year-old Znak being marched down the street near his offices by masked men in civilian clothes.

On September 7, another member of the presidium of the opposition’s Coordination Council, Maryya Kalesnikava, was grabbed off the street in Minsk by masked men.

She and two other opposition organizers turned up the next day at Belarus’s border with Ukraine in an apparent attempt to expel her, although she reportedly tore up her passport to avoid deportation.

Belarus’s authorities, who had denied Kalesnikava was in custody, later acknowledged that she had been detained.

The opposition leaders she was with at the border, council press secretary Anton Randyonkau and executive secretary Ivan Krautsou, reportedly are in Ukraine.

Clampdown On Council

The Coordination Council has pressed for a peaceful transition of power since election officials declared Lukashenka the runaway winner of the August 9 vote critics say was fraudulent.

It was set up by Tsikhanouskaya, a political novice who has continued to press for Lukashenka’s exit and a new election from Lithuanian exile.

Belarusian chief prosecutor Alyaksandr Konyuk announced the launch of criminal proceedings against the Coordination Council in mid-August.

All but two of the council presidium’s seven members have been either arrested or forced to leave the country.

Crisis In Belarus

Read our coverage as Belarusians take to the streets to demand the resignation of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and call for new elections after official results from the August 9 presidential poll gave Lukashenka a landslide victory.

This week’s disappearances elicited accusations by the European Union that the embattled Belarusian regime was using kidnapping and intimidation to quash more than four weeks of unprecedented protests.

Thousands of people have been arrested, journalists have been harassed and expelled, and clips have emerged of Lukashenka’s security services brutally abusing detainees since the vote.

Germany, which currently holds the rotating EU Presidency, has demanded information on those who went missing and the release of political prisoners.

An unnamed senior official in the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump said on September 8 that the United States was “extremely concerned by continued human rights violations” in Belarus. The official said the forced expulsion of opposition figures is one of the methods Minsk “is using in its attempts to deny freedom of speech.”Lukashenka is reportedly due to visit Russia for a meeting with President Vladimir Putin on September 14.

With reporting by Tut.by, Reuters, and AP