Belarus authorities raise pressure on protest leaders

Authorities in Belarus detained a leader of striking factory workers and threatened protesters with criminal charges on Friday in a bid to stem massive protests challenging the extension of the 26-year rule of the country's authoritarian president, who accused the U.S. of fomenting the unrest.

Lukashenko derides opposition as Western puppets

A Belarusian law enforcement officer holds a loudspeaker during an opposition demonstration to protest against presidential election results near a philharmonic hall in Minsk on Friday. (Reuters)

Authorities in Belarus detained a leader of striking factory workers and threatened protesters with criminal charges on Friday in a bid to stem massive protests challenging the extension of the 26-year rule of the country's authoritarian president, who accused the U.S. of fomenting the unrest.

Belarusian investigators also summoned three leading opposition activists for questioning as part of a criminal probe into the creation of a co-ordination council intended to facilitate the transition of power.

President Alexander Lukashenko on Friday accused the U.S. of instigating the protests as he visited a state farm to rally support.

"The U.S. is planning and directing everything, and the Europeans are playing up to it," he said.

The United States on Thursday urged authorities in Belarus to engage in a dialogue with the opposition council and described the Aug. 9 presidential election that handed Lukashenko a sixth term as neither free nor fair. EU leaders say they are preparing sanctions against Belarusian officials.

Speaking to agricultural workers, Lukashenko derided the opposition as Western puppets and vowed to take steps to quickly end protests.

"You shouldn't worry about that — it's my problem that I must solve. And believe me, we will solve it in the nearest days," he said. "They mustn't destroy the country, we will not allow that to happen."

Strike organizers detained

Belarus's Interior Ministry said Friday that Yevgeny Bokhvalov, who organized the strike at the huge Minsk Automobile Plant, was detained, but gave no further details. The factory, which makes heavy trucks, has remained on strike since Monday along with many other industrial plants across the country.

The strike committee at the giant Belaruskali potash factory in Soligorsk said the KGB detained one of the organizers of the walkout, Dmitry Kudelevich, but he managed to escape through a toilet window and fled to neighbouring Ukraine.

The labour action has cast a tough challenge to 65-year-old Lukashenko, who had relied on blue-collar workers as his core support base throughout his iron-fisted rule.

People sing during an opposition demonstration in Minsk on Friday. (Reuters)

In a bid to halt the strike, the Belarusian leader has warned that the participants would face dismissal and ordered law enforcement agencies to protect factory managers from opposition pressure.

"Most of all, Lukashenko fears the factory workers' protest, so he tries to scare strike organizers and stop the strikes," said Sergei Dylevsky, the leader of the strike-organizing committee at the Minsk Tractor Plant.

Dylevsky, a member of the opposition's co-ordination council created earlier this week to facilitate the transition of power, was summoned for interrogation along with another council member, lawyer Maxim Znak.

"Even if they arrest us, it will not stop the protests and make Lukashenko look legitimate," Dylevsky said.

'New repressions'

Early Friday, police deployed to block the streets around the headquarters of the investigative committee where the opposition activists were to be questioned. Several dozen demonstrators rallied nearby to protest the authorities' actions as the post-election protests entered their 13th straight day.

"Hundreds of KGB operatives came to factories to question and scare the workers," said 53-year-old engineer Andrei Yelkin who works at the Minsk Automobile Plant. "We are calling for dialogue, but the authorities are responding with threats and new repressions."

In a bid to stem the daily demonstrations, Belarus prosecutor general Alexander Konyuk on Friday warned that participants in unsanctioned protests could face criminal charges.

The prosecutor general's office has opened a criminal probe into the creation of the co-ordination council, charging it violated the constitution and threatened national security. The council members have rejected the accusations and insist their actions fully comply with Belarusian law.

The council has called for a new presidential election organized by newly formed election commissions, as well as for an investigation into the protest crackdown and compensation for victims of police violence.

During the first four days of post-election protests, police detained almost 7,000 people and injured hundreds with rubber bullets, stun grenades and clubs. At least three protesters died.

The crackdown fuelled massive outrage and swelled protesters' ranks, forcing authorities to change tactics and stop breaking up crowds. But after standing back for days, police again beefed up their presence on the streets and deployed outside major factories that have joined the strike.

'Introduction of censorship'

Hundreds of state television employees have also gone on strike this week, shaking the government's control of the media. Seeking to tighten control over information, the state publishing house has stopped printing top independent newspapers, the Narodnaya Volya and Komsomolskaya Pravda, citing equipment malfunction.

"It effectively amounts to the introduction of censorship," said Narodnaya Volya, editor Iosif Seredich, saying that the newspaper was focusing on the crackdown of protests and manipulation with the vote.

Belarus opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya gives a news conference on Aug. 21, 2020, in Vilnius, Lithuania. Belarusians 'will never accept' President Alexander Lukashenko's leadership, she said at her first news conference since fleeing to Lithuania last week. (Petras Malukas/AFP/Getty Images)

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Lukashenko's main challenger who left Belarus and went to Lithuania after the vote under pressure from authorities, urged factory workers to continue striking in a video statement Friday.

"The future of Belarus, the future of our children, depends on your unity and resolve," she said.

Speaking later at a news conference in Vilnius, Tikhanovskaya demanded the release of all protesters who were detained and called for a new presidential vote.

"New fair, free and transparent elections must be held," she said. "People of Belarus have woken up and they do not want to live in fear and lies anymore."