Opposition leader calls for Belarus protests as EU mulls sanctions

Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya called on Friday for continued protests as the European Union mulls sanctions against Belarus on allegations of election-rigging and police violence on civilians.

Minsk, 14 August 2020 (dpa/MIA) – Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya called on Friday for continued protests as the European Union mulls sanctions against Belarus on allegations of election-rigging and police violence on civilians.

Tikhanovskaya, who left Belarus after challenging long-time President Alexander Lukashenko in Sunday’s election, called for the mayors of cities throughout the country to allow protesters to rally peacefully this upcoming weekend.

“For me and for every one of us, human life is what is most valuable. We need to stop the violence on the streets of Belarusian cities,” Tikhanovskaya said in a video posted on social media.

Calling for peaceful protests on both Saturday and Sunday, Tikhanovskaya, who placed second in the election according to the widely disputed official tally, said that Belarusians must stand up for their democratic rights.

“We have always said it is necessary to defend our choice only through legal, non-violent methods. The authorities have turned the peaceful rallying of citizens on the streets into bloody mayhem,” Tikhanovskaya said.

EU member state Lithuania, which borders Belarus, has said Tikhanovskaya came to safety in that country earlier this week.

Protests throughout Belarus erupted following Sunday’s election, with electoral authorities saying Lukashenko had garnered about 80 per cent of the vote.

The EU has described the election as “neither free nor fair” and condemned the police crackdown on protesters, according to a statement by the European Council. “State authorities deployed disproportionate and unacceptable violence causing at least one death and many injuries.”

There have been protests in major cities every day since the election. Hundreds of doctors and groups of women formed human chains in the capital Minsk on Friday to protest Lukashenko’s re-election.

The pressure on Lukashenko has been further increased by workers striking in numerous state-owned companies throughout the country.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen demanded sanctions on Belarusian officials “who violated democratic values or abused human rights.”

“I am confident today’s EU foreign ministers’ discussion will demonstrate our strong support for the rights of the people in Belarus to fundamental freedoms and democracy,” she wrote on Twitter.

The 27 ministers are set to meet on Friday afternoon. The European Union has in previous years already sanctioned some officials and imposed an arms embargo.

The Czech Republic, Poland and Lithuania, former Eastern Bloc states, have led the calls for EU action on Belarus.

“We cannot wait. The Belarusian people need our immediate help,” Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said in a statement on Twitter.

About 1,000 of the 7,000 people detained during protests were reportedly freed on Friday morning.

Many of those released said they were severely mistreated.

They recounted the lack of food and space in prison cells and showed wounds and bruises, according to local media and videos and photos circulating early on Friday.

Several people had to be taken to hospital immediately after being released, local media reported.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the “brutal violence” used against protesters, via her spokesman in Berlin.

“The chancellor in particular condemns the fact that thousands have been imprisoned merely for taking part in peaceful protests. She is appalled by reports that prisoners have been abused,” spokesman Steffen Seibert said.

“Statements from tortured people unfortunately prove many such cases,” he added.

“Showing maltreated prisoners on television is also totally unacceptable,” the spokesman said, calling on the detainees to be released “unconditionally and immediately.”

Interior Minister Yury Karayev apologized to citizens on state television for the arrest of many innocent people.

Lukashenko called on workers to refrain from striking and emphasized that he remained in the country to lead it, according to comments published by state media on Friday.

“If people want to work, please, here’s work, come and work. If a person does not want to work, we will not drag him in with a lasso,” Lukashenko said.

Lukashenko, 65, has led the former Soviet republic for a quarter of a century, tolerating little dissent.

Belarus, whose closest ally is neighbouring Russia, is one of the poorest countries in Europe and maintains an economic structure similar to its Soviet predecessor state. Belarus’ economy is dominated by massive state-owned companies.

A protester whose father was temporarily detained during a demonstration this week told dpa that workers’ strikes had more potential than street protests to evoke political change.

“A significant change will be if factories go on strike. Otherwise I am afraid there will be no success,” the protester said on condition on anonymity.

EU state Lithuania has announced that it would ease entry restrictions for Belarusians seeking asylum.

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