Prosecutors in Belarus opened a criminal investigation on Thursday against opposition leaders amid massive protests against election results that extended the 26-year rule of the country’s authoritarian leader.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko had threatened opposition leaders with criminal charges. Following up on his warning, prosecutors opened a criminal investigation on charges of undermining national security.
A leading opposition figure also reported being threatened with arrest as post-election protests continued in Minsk and other cities for the 12th straight day.
Demonstrators are challenging the official election results that showed Lukashenko winning a sixth term with 80 percent of the vote and demanding his resignation.
The Belarusian Prosecutor General’s office said the creation of a council to negotiate a democratic transition of power violated the constitution and that authorities had opened a criminal inquiry against its founders.
“The creation and the activities of the Coordination Council are aimed at seizing power and inflicting damage to the national security,” Prosecutor General Alexander Konyuk said.
The council members have rejected the accusations and insist their actions fully comply with Belarusian law.
European Union leaders on Wednesday expressed solidarity with the protesters in Belarus and said they were preparing sanctions against Belarusian officials responsible for alleged election fraud and for police brutality against protesters.
During the first four days of protests, police detained almost 7,000 people and injured hundreds. At least three protesters died.
The crackdown fueled massive outrage, swelling the crowd of protesters to an unprecedented 200,000 on Sunday.
After standing back for days, police stepped up their presence on the streets of the Belarusian capital on Wednesday, blocking access to some government buildings and also deploying outside major factories where workers have been on strike since Monday.
In a bid to stop the strike from spreading, Lukashenko on Wednesday said that the participants would face dismissal and ordered law enforcement agencies to protect factory managers from opposition pressure.
Hundreds of state television employees have also gone on strike, shaking the government’s control of the media.
The Belarusian leader also warned members of the Coordination Council 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 opposition body consists of top associates of Lukashenko’s leading challenger in the Aug. 9 election, as well as rights activists and representatives of striking workers. It also includes Belarus’ most famous author, Svetlana Alexievich, who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature.
The only former senior official on the council, Pavel Latushko, who was fired earlier this week for siding with protesters, said he wouldn’t leave the country despite being threatened with arrest.
“Yes, I fear the arrest,” Latushko, a former culture minister and ambassador to France, told The Associated Press on Thursday.
“But I say that I haven’t made any criminal offense and I’m not breaking the law by expressing my opinion. I have no intention to leave the country.”
Another opposition council member, Sergei Dylevsky, the leader of striking workers at a tractor plant, also dismissed the official accusations as “total nonsense.”
“There is a sharp conflict between the people and the government, and we only represent a body that would try to mediate it,” Dylevsky said.
“We aren’t aiming to overthrow the government and seize power; our goal is peaceful dialogue.”
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