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.
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 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 expressed solidarity with protesters and rejected the official results of the election that showed Mr. Lukashenko won 80% of the vote. The EU said it’s 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 Mr. Lukashenko, who had relied on blue-collar workers as his core support base.
In a bid to stop the strike from spreading, Mr. Lukashenko on Wednesday said that the participants would face dismissal and ordered law enforcement agencies to protect factory managers from the opposition pressure.
In another new challenge to Mr. Lukashenko, hundreds of employees of state television have gone on strike amid a rising tide of protests, calling for his resignation after a vote the opposition saw as rigged.
The journalists' action this week has shaken the government's control of the media, helping further erode Mr. Lukashenko's grip on power.
Vyacheslav Lomonosov, one of the Belarusian TV employees who joined the labor action, said he and his colleagues could no longer tolerate an official ban on reporting the truth about a brutal crackdown on protests that has stoked international outrage.
“There are people killed, raped, thousands are protesting, while they’re saying everything’s fine in the country and nothing is going on,” he said. “It can’t be like that, people need to get the truth from TV.”
The walkout of about 300 employees of Belarusian state TV has dealt a particularly painful blow to the Belarusian leader, who has relentlessly stifled independent media since coming to power in 1994 and relied on state-controlled television and other media to shape public opinion.
The state television workers were joined by journalists from the leading daily Zvyazda, who put out a statement demanding an end to censorship.
Facing the massive protests, the government has sought to tighten controls over information.
In the first four days of protests after the vote, police deliberately targeted journalists from independent Belarusian news outlets and foreign media, detaining scores, beating some of them, damaging their equipment, and seizing memory cards.
Boris Goretsky, vice-president of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, said 72 journalists were detained while covering the protests.
He said that the authorities have blocked many online independent news media and denied accreditation to hundreds of foreign journalists, who have been eager to come to the country to cover the protests.
Mr. Goretsky pointed at the allegations that the government turned to Russia for help to keep the state television running, and some of the striking TV employees have been reportedly replaced with Russian personnel.
"There are reports that Russian journalists were invited to take the place of their striking colleagues, and started working on producing stories,” he said.
Mr. Lukashenko 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.
“The creation and the activities of the Coordination Council are aimed at seizing power and inflicting damage to the national security,” said Prosecutor General Alexander Konyuk.
The council members have rejected the accusations and insisted that their actions have been in full conformity with Belarusian law.
The opposition body consists of top associates of Mr. Lukashenko’s main challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, as well as rights activists and representatives of striking workers. It also includes the nation’s most famous author, Svetlana Alexievich, who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature.
A leading council member, Pavel Latushko, who was fired earlier this week for siding with protesters, said he had received threats and could move to Russia to avoid being arrested. The facade of his house in Minsk was splashed with red paint overnight.
Ms. Tsikhanouskaya, a former English teacher who moved to neighboring Lithuania after the vote under pressure from the Belarusian authorities, met Thursday with the Baltic country’s Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis, who promised to help "achieve free and fair elections in Belarus.”
“We spoke about these tests she faced during the election campaign and the huge responsibility she had taken on, about her life in Lithuania, personal safety, and the safety of her family,” the prime minister said on Facebook where he also posted a photo of them together.
This story was reported by The Associated Press. Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania contributed to this report.
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