Fresh arrests in Belarus as Nobel laureate defies investigators

Svetlana Alexievich (centre) and Pavel Latushko (left) arrive at the Belarusian Investigative Committee in Minsk on Aug 26. (AP pic)

MINSK: Police arrested around twenty people protesting the disputed reelection of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko Wednesday, hours after Nobel Prize-winning author Svetlana Alexievich recounted her meeting with investigators in a criminal probe into the opposition.

Roughly one thousand people had gathered late Wednesday on Independence Square in the capital Minsk, the scene of unprecedented anti-government demonstrations in recent weeks.

AFP journalists saw around 20 of them arrested by the large numbers of riot police present at the event.

Since the Aug 9 election, mass demonstrations have pushed back against Lukashenko’s claim to have won 80% of the vote and yet another term as president after 26 years in power.

Last Sunday saw a crowd of more than 100,000 hit Minsk streets for the second Sunday in a row.

But the government crackdown on marches and strikes in key industries has intensified in step with the protests.

Earlier Wednesday, Nobel prizewinner author Alexievich met briefly with officials investigating the opposition’s Coordination Council, of which she is a member.

She left soon after arriving for questioning, saying she had invoked her right not to testify against herself and that the council’s only goal was “to unite society”.

Just before the meeting, she had told AFP: “I am completely calm. I do not feel guilty. Everything we are doing is legal and necessary.”

‘Unite society’

The council was formed to oversee a peaceful transition of power after opposition leaders rejected Lukashenko’s claim to have won a sixth term, but was swiftly targeted by a criminal probe.

Seventy-two-year-old Alexievich was named a member of the council’s praesidium but has not attended its sessions.

Alexievich, who won the Nobel Literature Prize in 2015, is an outspoken critic of Lukashenko and has supported leading opposition figure Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who fled to neighbouring Lithuania after claiming victory in the vote.

Also Wednesday, Iouri Rovovoi, a strike leader at fertiliser maker Grodno Azot, said in an Instagram message that he had fled to Poland as he feared arrest.

The European Union’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell and Canadian Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said in a joint statement the EU and Canada “stand by the people’s wish for democratic change” in Belarus.

“The presidential elections were neither free nor fair,” they added, urging an “open and constructive national dialogue” – echoing an earlier statement from the Council of Europe.

‘Trumped-up charges’

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who backs Lukashenko, told Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte “any attempt to interfere in the internal affairs (of Belarus) and to put pressure on its authorities would be counterproductive”, according to a Kremlin statement.

At least three other members of the Coordination Council in Belarus have been detained this week, including former diplomat and culture minister Pavel Latushko, who was questioned by investigators for several hours on Tuesday and who signed an agreement barring him from discussing the meeting.

Latushko was forced to resign from his job as director of the state Janka Kupala Theatre after calling for new elections and dozens of staff resigned Wednesday in a show of solidarity, a spokesman said.

Two other members of the praesidium were detained earlier this week and sentenced to 10 days in police detention for organising unauthorised rallies.

Police searched the home of Valery Tsepkalo, a leading candidate in the elections who fled ahead of the vote fearing arrest, his spokesman Alexei Urban told AFP.

The European Union has rejected the results of the election and said it will impose sanctions on between 15 and 20 people it believes are responsible for election fraud and for cracking down on peaceful protesters.

International advocacy group Amnesty International and 15 other rights groups on Wednesday urged the UN Human Rights Council to “convene a special session to address the human rights crisis in Belarus”.

In an open letter, the groups accused Lukashenko’s government of carrying out “arbitrary arrests, prosecutions under trumped-up charges, and torture and other ill-treatment in relation to the 2020 presidential elections”.