Belarus authorities raise pressure on protest leaders

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A Belarusian opposition supporter holds an old Belarusian national flag during a protest rally in front of the government building at Independent Square in Minsk, Belarus, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. Demonstrators are taking to the streets of the Belarusian capital and other cities, keeping up their push for the resignation of the nation’s authoritarian leader. President Alexander Lukashenko has extended his 26-year rule in a vote the opposition saw as rigged. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Belarus’ authorities on Friday detained a leader of striking factory workers, raising pressure on the opposition amid massive protests against official election results that extended the 26-year rule of the country’s authoritarian president.

Belarusian investigators also summoned three leading opposition activists for questioning as part of a criminal probe into the creation of a coordination council intended to facilitate the transition of power. The move follows President Alexander Lukashenko’s warning that the opposition leaders could face criminal charges.

The interior minister said that Yevgeny Bokhvalov, who organized the strike at the huge Minsk Automobile Plant, was detained, but gave no further details. The factory, which makes heavy trucks, has remained on strike since Monday along with many other industrial plants across the country.

The strike has cast a tough challenge to 65-year-old Lukashenko, who had relied on blue-collar workers as his core support base throughout his iron-fisted rule.

In a bid to halt the strike, the Belarusian leader has warned that the participants would face dismissal and ordered law enforcement agencies to protect factory managers from opposition pressure.

“Most of all, Lukashenko fears the factory workers’ protest, so he tries to scare strike organizers and stop the strikes,” said Sergei Dylevsky, the leader of the strike-organizing committee at the Minsk Tractor Plant.

Dylevsky, a member of the opposition’s Coordination Council created earlier this week to facilitate the transition of power, was summoned for interrogation along with two other council members, ex-culture minister and ambassador to France, Pavel Latushko, and lawyer Maxim Znak.

“Even if they arrest us, it will not stop the protests and make Lukashenko look legitimate,” Dylevsky said.

Early Friday, police deployed to block the streets around the headquarters of the Investigative Committee where the opposition activists were to be questioned. Several dozen demonstrators rallied nearby to protest the authorities’ actions as the post-election protests entered their 13th straight day.

“Hundreds of KGB operatives came to factories to question and scare the workers,” said 53-year-old engineer Andrei Yelkin who works at the Minsk Automobile Plant. “We are calling for dialogue, but the authorities are responding with threats and new repressions.”

The Belarusian Prosecutor General’s office said the creation of the Coordination Council, which met for the first time Wednesday, violated the constitution and threatened national security. The council members have rejected the accusations and insist their actions fully comply with Belarusian law.

The council has called for a new presidential election organized by newly formed election commissions, as well as for an investigation into the protest crackdown and compensation for victims of police violence.

The group’s goals drew increasing support from the West. The United States on Thursday urged authorities to engage in a dialogue with the opposition council and described the Aug. 9 presidential election that handed Lukashenko a sixth term as neither free nor fair.

During the first four days of post-election 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. But after standing back for days, police again beefed up their presence on the streets and deployed outside major factories that have joined the strike.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s main challenger who left Belarus and went to Lithuania after the vote under pressure from authorities, urged factory workers to continue striking in a video statement Friday.

“The future of Belarus, the future of our children depends on your unity and resolve,” she said. “We will force the authorities who holed up in their palaces to hear our voice.”

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Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the political turmoil in Belarus at https://www.apnews.com/Belarus

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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