Rights group: Dozens in Belarus investigated amid protests

World News

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Authorities in Belarus, that’s seen six weeks of protests against the country’s authoritarian president after a disputed election, have opened more than 250 criminal cases that target political opponents, activists and protesters, a Belarusian human rights group said Tuesday.

Dozens of people, according to the Viasna group, have been subject to criminal investigation since the start of the campaigning for the election more than four months ago. Many face charges such as fomenting mass riots or participating in them and resisting law enforcement officers, The group declared 68 people to be political prisoners.

“The scale and the scope of repression in Belarus forces human rights advocates to ask for help from international organizations, within the framework of which Minsk has undertaken obligations that are grossly violated,” Viasna head Ales Bialiatski said.

Belarus has been engulfed in daily protests since Aug. 9, when President Alexander Lukashenko won his sixth term in office in an election opposition supporters and many European governments believe was rigged. The largest rallies in Minsk attracted crowds of up to 200,000.

Lukashenko has run the ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million with an iron fist since assuming office in 1994, repressing opposition and independent media. Ahead of the presidential election, two of his opponents were jailed on criminal charges. Two more, including Sviatliana Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old English teacher who ran against Lukashenko in the Aug. 9 vote, left the country fearing for their safety.

Lukashenko has bristled at suggestions of dialogue with the opposition. During the first three days of the protests, demonstrators faced a brutal crackdown, with police using truncheons and rubber bullets to disperse crowds. Several protesters died.

Amid international outrage, Belarusian authorities switched to prosecuting top activists and mass detentions, avoiding large-scale violence. Many members of the Coordination Council that was formed by the opposition to push for a transition of power have been arrested or forced to leave the country.

On Monday, a court rejected an appeal against the arrest of prominent council member Maria Kolesnikova. She is being held pending trial on charges of undermining the state, which carry a potential sentence of five years in prison.

Nearly 900 people were detained during protests on Saturday and Sunday, according to the Viasna group. In the city of Soligorsk on Monday, police detained 20 more who gathered in front of the giant Belaruskali potash factory to support a striking miner, local media reported. The strike organizer at Belaruskali, Anatoly Bokun, was sentenced to 25 days of administrative arrest on Tuesday.

As the crackdown continued, the European Union pondered sanctions against the Belarusian leadership. EU foreign ministers failed to agree Monday on imposing sanctions on officials suspected of rigging the Aug. 9 election. However, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said there was “clear will to adopt those sanctions.”

In a statement Tuesday, Borrell said he was prepared to go to Minsk “if this could contribute to progress,” adding that “until now, Lukashenko has refused to engage with the European Union at any level.”

“Belarusians courageously demand democratic change. The EU must stand by them,” Borrell said.

In the statement, he outlined four “lines of action” the EU agreed to pursue, which include sanctions against some 40 people and entities, facilitating a national dialogue, and financial support of the Belarusian people — 53 million euros the European Commission is mobilizing to cover “legal assistance, medical support and other emergency assistance to those most in need,” as well as “support for civil society and independent media.”

“The time has come for the EU to call things by their name: Mr Lukashenko has lost all legitimacy,” Borrell said.

Daria Litvinova in Moscow contributed to this report.

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