Belarus' opposition challenger urges UN action amid protests
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Hundreds of students, information technology workers and others rallied again in Belarus’ capital Friday to protest the disputed reelection of the nation’s authoritarian president, while the main opposition challenger in the vote urged the United Nations to help end the crackdown on protests.
Information technology workers and other protesters formed “chains of solidarity” in various parts of Minsk to keep pushing for the resignation of President Alexander Lukashenko, who extended his 26-year rule in an Aug. 9 election that the opposition challenged as rigged.
Belarusians have turned out in en masse for nearly four weeks to protest the official election results that gave Lukashenko a sixth term with 80% of the vote.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition challenger in the vote, addressed Friday’s meeting of the U.N. Security Council via video link, asking it to “stop blatant human rights violations and cynical disregard for human dignity right in the middle of Europe.”
She accused Lukashenko of stealing the election and asked the U.N. to condemn the crackdown on protesters, send a monitoring mission to Belarus and call a special session of its Human Rights Council to discuss the situation in the country.
“I call on the international community to use all mechanisms to stop the violence, including sanctions on the individuals that committed electoral violations and crimes against humanity,” she said.
During the first few days of post-election protests, police detained nearly 7,000 people and beat hundreds, drawing international outrage and causing the anti-government demonstrations to swell. The government has since shifted tactics, seeking to squelch protests with threats, the selective detention of protesters and the prosecution of activists.
On Friday, police entered the State Linguistics University in Minsk to disperse an action by students who were expressing solidarity with classmates detained earlier. Officers rounded up several participants.
Later in the day, hundreds of students rallied in front of the university in a show of defiance, chanting “Shame!”
In another part of the city, hundreds of IT workers formed a human chain outside the High Technology Park a day after the authorities raided one of the companies there and detained several workers, including its top manager who was accused of financial abuses.
“Searches and arrests at big IT companies only cause a wave of solidarity and fuel protest,” said IT expert Dmitry Boronovsky. “The Belarusians have felt the taste of freedom and will never agree to return to the dictatorship.”
Earlier on Friday, several government websites were attacked by hackers, who added Lukashenko and his interior minister to the list of wanted criminal suspects posted on the Interior Ministry’s page.
In recent years, Belarusian authorities have sought to promote the IT sector in a bid to diversify the Soviet-style economy relying mostly on aging heavy industries. It has expanded quickly over the past few years thanks to tax breaks and other benefits, generating a growing chunk of government revenues.
The High Technology Park in Minsk houses 750 IT companies that employ 58,000 people and currently account for more than 6% of the nation’s GDP.
When the post-election protests erupted, IT workers were quick to join the demonstrations. Many talked about their plans to leave the country, saying they wouldn’t continue their work amid the crackdown on the opposition.
Last month, dozens of top IT entrepreneurs put out an open letter, warning authorities that repression against dissent would trigger massive brain drain.
“Trampling on the law will bring nothing good,” they said. “If it continues, thousands of talented IT experts will leave the country together with their families in the next few months. Belarus is in big trouble, dreams about its future are dying before our eyes.”
A leading IT company, EPAM, has launched a training program that offers IT careers to people who lost jobs because of their support for the opposition.
Seeking to stem the tide of protests, Belarusian authorities have specifically targeted members of the Coordination Council that opposition activists set up after the election to try to negotiate a transition of power. Two of its members were given 10-day jail sentences on charges of staging unsanctioned protests last week, and a court in Minsk handed them new 15-day sentences Thursday.
Earlier this week, six Belarusian journalists were detained while covering a student demonstration and charged with taking part in unsanctioned protests. During a Friday court hearing, police officers in ski masks testified against them via a video link. The court handed them three-day sentences, the time they already have spent in custody.
Dozens of colleagues met them outside the court as they walked out, chanting “Freedom!”
Authorities also have revoked the accreditation of many Belarusian journalists and deported some foreign journalists, including two Moscow-based Associated Press journalists. AP’s Belarusian journalists were among those told their press credentials had been revoked.
On Thursday, two popular TV anchors who resigned from state TV in solidarity with the protesters were handed 10-day sentences for taking part in unauthorized rallies.
“They beat journalists, they put them on trial, strip them of their credentials and deport them from the country,” Andrei Bastunets, head of the Belarusian Associaton of Journalists, told The Associated Press. “The law doesn’t work, they accuse journalists with cameras of coordinating the protests.”
The United States and the European Union have criticized the Aug. 9 presidential election as neither free nor fair and urged Belarusian authorities to engage in a dialogue with the opposition, a demand Lukashenko has dismissed.
“We’ve made very clear that this election was not a real election. It was fraudulent; it wasn’t fair,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday in an interview with conservative radio show host Hugh Hewitt, adding that the U.S. is working with its European partners to ensure basic freedoms for the Belarusian people.
Facing Western criticism, the Belarusian leader has sought to secure support from Russia, which has a union agreement with Belarus envisaging close political, economic and military ties. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he is ready to send police to Belarus at Lukashenko’s request if the demonstrations turn violent.
On a visit to Moscow on Friday, the Belarusian defense minister accused the West of waging a “hybrid war against the Belarusian state,” applying unprecedented diplomatic, political and economic pressure.