Belarus opposition challenger Svetlana Tikhanovskaya voiced defiance on Friday after President Alexander Lukashenko’s government opened a criminal probe into attempts by the opposition to “seize power”.
In her first public comments since fleeing to Lithuania, Tikhanovskaya said Belarusians would “never accept the current leadership again” after a crackdown on mass protests following a disputed August 9 election.
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“They can never forgive and forget all the violence that our citizens have suffered,” she said.
Tikhanovskaya, a political novice who only put forward her candidacy when her blogger husband was arrested ahead of the vote, also told reporters she loved her homeland and planned to return “when I feel safe there”.
“It should be clear to the president that there is a need for change. I hope that good sense prevails and the people will be heard and there will be new elections,” she said, declining to comment on whether she would be a candidate in any fresh vote.
A nervous-looking Tikhanovskaya also refused to answer questions about her own safety or about what compelled her to leave Belarus in the aftermath of the election.
“As for threats, you know I don’t think I would like to discuss this question now,” she said in English.
– ‘Fear and falsehoods’ –
“Every person in our country feels fear and is scared now, but it’s our mission to step over all our fears and move further,” she added.
Supporters and the Lithuanian government have said she had little choice but to leave after coming under intense pressure from the authorities during a meeting at the Central Election Commission in Minsk.
Tikhanovskaya’s campaign has inspired unprecedented mass protests in the former Soviet republic against Lukashenko’s 26-year rule.
The strongman claimed a sixth term with 80 percent of the vote in the poll.
The EU has rejected Lukashenko’s re-election and is planning sanctions against those it holds responsible for violence against protesters.
Asked about Russian support for Lukashenko, Tikhanovskaya said: “I call on all countries of the world to respect the sovereignty of the Republic of Belarus.”
“We don’t want to live in fear and falsehoods any more,” she said, calling for striking workers to liaise with the coordination council she has appointed to organise pro-democracy protests.
“The creation of the coordination council is aimed at negotiating a peaceful handover of power.”
– Belarus engaging in ‘intimidation’ –
Belarus on Thursday opened a criminal probe into the opposition council, saying it was an unconstitutional attempt to topple Lukashenko.
A member of the Coordination Council, lawyer Maxim Znak, arrived Friday at the Minsk offices of the country’s Investigative Committee, where he had been summoned for questioning.
Supporters clapped and chanted “One for all, all for one!”
The EU on Friday demanded that Belarus halt the investigation, accusing the government of “intimidation”.
“The Coordination Council, which consists of representatives of different parts of Belarusian society, reached out to the authorities for a dialogue and the authorities answered with the opening of a criminal case,” EU foreign affairs spokeswoman Nabila Massrali said in a statement.
“In doing so, the Belarusian state authorities have once again reverted to intimidation based on political grounds,” she said.
“We expect the Belarusian authorities to stop the criminal case and instead to engage in a dialogue in view of moving towards a peaceful way out of the current crisis.”
The United Nations also on Friday said it was “seriously concerned” about more than 100 people still being detained in Belarus in connection with the protests, even though several thousand more have been released.
“We call on the authorities in Belarus to immediately release all those who have been unlawfully or arbitrarily detained,” said Elizabeth Throssel, a spokeswoman for the UN human rights office.