Belarusian leader set to visit Russia as protests continue

KYIV, UKRAINE (AP) — Belarusian authorities detained scores of demonstrators on Friday while seeking to end more than a month of protests against the country’s authoritarian president, who is set to visit Russia to help shore up his hold on power after 26 years in office.

Protesters in Belarus spent a month denouncing the results of the country’s August 9 presidential election as rigged and demanding the resignation of President Alexander Lukashenko from the sixth term he won. Facing criticism from the West, Lukashenko worked to cement ties with his main ally and sponsor Russia.

He is set to head to Russia tomorrow for talks with President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Some expect Belarusian authorities to take tougher actions against protesters ahead of the meeting.

At least nine protesters were detained on Friday outside a court in Belarus’ capital Minsk as they rallied in solidarity with industrial workers defending their right to launch a strike. Police detained more protesters in the cities of Vitebsk, Gomel and Baranovichi, according to the Viasna human rights centre in Minsk.

“The threats and detentions come before the protests set for the weekend,” the head of the centre Ales Bialitski said. “Lukashenko would very much like to show the Kremlin that the protests are abating and he controls the situation, but so far repressions have had the opposite effect.”

Police block protesters during a rally in Minsk, Belarus. PHOTO: AP

The post-election protests attracted the biggest crowds on Sundays, when up to 200,000 people flooded the streets of the capital.

After a brutal crackdown on peaceful demonstrators in the initial days after the vote drew international outrage and swelled the opposition ranks, Belarusian authorities sought to squelch the dissent by targetting top activists.

Prosecutors launched a criminal probe against top members of the Coordination Council created by the opposition to push for a new election, accusing them of undermining national security.

The council’s senior members except for Nobel Prize-winning writer Svetlana Alexievich have been either jailed or forcibly expelled from the country. Unidentified people attempted on Wednesday to enter Alexievich’s apartment in Minsk, and diplomats from several European Union (EU)nations gathered there to prevent her detention and again on Thursday evening.

Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics tweeted on Friday that he had a call with Alexievich and “expressed Latvia’s full support to the Belarusian society in the strive for political rights and freedoms”.

A leading member of the opposition council Maria Kolesnikova remained in jail after resisting her forcible expulsion from Belarus on Tuesday. She alleged that officers of the nation’s state security agency abducted her and threatened to kill her and pushed for a criminal probe into their actions.

United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on Belarus’ authorities “to refrain from the use of force against those engaging in peaceful assembly and to ensure that allegations of torture and other mistreatment of people in detention are fully investigated and addressed”, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Friday.

The United States (US) and the EU criticised Belarus’ election as neither free nor fair and urged Lukashenko to engage in talks with the opposition, which he rejected.