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Belarus Opens Criminal Probe into Opposition Group

After more than 10 days of mass protests rejecting President Alexander Lukashenko’s recent re-election, the Belarus chief prosecutor opened an investigation on 20 August into a lead opposition group. Belarusian prosecutors claim the group is attempting to illegally seize power. 

The group, the Coordination Council, was created by opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya in an attempt to negotiate a democratic transfer of authority. The council, as well as protesters and the European Union, claim that Lukashenko’s victory was secured through a rigged election. Tsikhanouskaya, a homemaker until her husband—like many other opposition candidates—was arrested and banned from running for office, is currently in Lithuania after receiving threats from authorities. 

In the indictment from Belarus’s chief prosecutor, Alexander Konyuk, the council is accused of an intent to seize “state power, and at harming national security,” according to the BBC, and claimed the group violated the country’s constitution. The Belarusian Prosecutor General’s office also opened a criminal inquiry against the council’s founders.

Lukashenko, who won a sixth presidential term in early August and has so far served as the country’s president for 26 years, had threatened the council with criminal charges prior to the announcement of the investigation.

One day prior to the announcement, Lukashenko threatened that protesters would be swept off the streets if they continued opposing his reelection. 

Official results, which declared Lukashenko the winner with 80 percent of the vote, have been contested both in and outside of Belarus. The Cooperation Council is calling for a new election, one organized by a new election commission. Tsikhanouskaya also asked the EU to reject the election results, which it did after holding an emergency summit on 18 August.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen pledged support of the decision of the Belarusian populace and that the EU’s executive branch would redirect “$63 million in assistance away from the Belarusian government, with $2.4 million going to victims of the violence, $1.2 million to ‘civil society and independent media,'” according to The New York Times, with the remainder of the earmarked funds shifted to fighting the coronavirus pandemic. 

The EU also announced financial sanctions against Belarusian officials for election fraud and abuse of protesters. 

During the first four days after Lukashenko’s reelection, police violently reacted to the widespread protests of Belarusians disputing the election results. Police used rubber bullets, stun grenades, and clubs on protesters. Beyond widespread injuries, authorities arrested roughly 7,000 people, with many of the detained protesters reporting additional violence and other abuse while in police custody. At least three protesters died, according to the AP.

The violence from police and authorities triggered a backlash, with an estimated 200,000 people demonstrating in the streets by Sunday, including thousands of factory workers who were long a reliable base for Lukashenko. Authorities were ordered to stop attempting to disperse protesters.

Although an initial 10,000 Minsk Tractor Works employees were striking in support of the protesters, that number quickly fell to an estimated less than 2,000, as employees have been threatened with firing if they continued striking. Police have also dispersed a demonstration at the plant and arrested two protesters.

Hundreds of protesters, calling for Lukashenko’s resignation and the release of arrested demonstrators, gathered on 19 August in front of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which carries out day-to-day law enforcement and has been accused of human rights violations. Reuters reported that although several officers were stationed at the ministry, no action has been taken against the peaceful protesters.

Lukashenko, who claims Western powers are the cause of unrest and are funding the protesters, recently ordered intelligence agencies to locate demonstrators’ organizers and called for tighter border controls.

Other industries, including the media, have faced repercussions for complaining about the election results or calling for Lukashenko's resignation, with television and radio channel employees blacklisted and barred from their workplaces, while journalists from independent news outlets were targeted by authorities. The Belarusian Association of Journalists said 72 journalists covering the demonstrations were detained by police and that the government has denied hundreds of foreign journalists media credentials.

After hundreds of members of the media walked out or quit in protest, reports arose of Russian news crews being brought in to fill in the emptied media roles.