April 23, 2021
Europe

Belarus prosecutors open criminal probe against opposition activists

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Belarusian authorities on Thursday opened a criminal probe against opposition activists who set up a council to negotiate the transition of power amid massive protests challenging the extension of the 26-year rule of the country's authoritarian leader in a vote the opposition saw as rigged.

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President Alexander Lukashenko has dismissed the protesters as Western puppets and threatened opposition leaders with criminal charges. Following up on his statement, the prosecutors opened a criminal investigation against the opposition activists on charges of undermining national security, and a leading opposition figure reported being threatened with arrest.

The 65-year-old Belarusian leader dismissed the European Union's criticism of the Aug. 9 vote and told its leaders to mind their own business.

The EU's leaders on Wednesday rejected the official results of the election that showed Lukashenko win 80% of the vote and expressed solidarity with protesters. The EU said its preparing sanctions against Belarusian officials responsible for the brutal post-election police actions.

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

The crackdown fueled massive outrage and swelled protesters ranks, forcing authorities to change tactics and stop breaking up crowds that grew to an unprecedented 200,000 on Sunday.

Protests continued Thursday in Minsk and other Belarusian cities for the 12th straight day.

After standing back for days, police again beefed up their presence on the streets of the Belarusian capital Wednesday, blocking access to some government buildings and also deploying in numbers outside major factories where workers have been on strike since Monday.

The industrial action that has engulfed major factories across the country cast a tough challenge to Lukashenko, who had relied on blue-collar workers as his core support base.

In a bid to stop the strike from spreading, Lukashenko on Wednesday said that the participants would face dismissal and ordered law enforcement agencies to protect factory managers from the opposition pressure.

Hundreds of state television employees have also gone on strike, shaking the governments control of the media.

The Belarusian leader also warned members of the Coordination Council who held their first meeting Wednesday that they could face criminal responsibility for their attempt to create “parallel power structures.”

The council called for a new presidential vote organized by newly formed election commissions and demanded an investigation into the crackdown on protests and compensation for the victims.

The Belarusian Prosecutor General's office said the creation of the council violated the constitution and opened a criminal inquiry against its founders on charges of threatening national security.

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