Top Belarus activist says authorities threatened to kill her

International News

FILE – In this Aug. 30, 2020, file photo, Maria Kolesnikova, one of Belarus’ opposition leaders, gestures during a rally in Minsk, Belarus. Kolesnikova, a professional flute player with no political experience, emerged as a key opposition activist in Belarus. She has appeared at protests of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko after he was kept in power by an Aug. 9 election that his critics say was rigged. (Tut.By via AP, File)

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — A prominent opposition activist who resisted her forcible expulsion from Belarus by ripping up her passport accused Belarusian authorities Thursday of threatening to kill her amid their efforts to end a month of protests against the country’s authoritarian president.

Maria Kolesnikova said in a formal complaint released by her lawyer that agents of Belarus’ state security committee put a bag on her head and drove her to the border with Ukraine before she fought her removal from Belarus and was jailed.

“They threatened to kill me,” Kolesnikova said. “They stated that if I refuse to leave the territory of Belarus voluntarily, they will get me out of the country anyway – alive or in fragments.”

She demanded that the nation’s Investigative Committee probe the KGB officers on charges of abduction, illegal detention and threats of killing.

Neither agency commented on Kolesnikova’s statement.

Asked about Kolesnikova’s statement, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said “We’re frankly very concerned about reports of detentions, reported use of force as well as … the pressures that have been put on the opposition, on civil society actors. It’s very important that the people of Belarus be able to exercise their political and constitutional rights peacefully, in a democratic environment.”

Opposition activists came under increasing pressure this week as Belarus marked a month since massive demonstrations broke out against President Alexander Lukashenko’s reelection to a sixth term.

The opposition rejects the results of the country’s Aug. 9 election, and the protesters demanding Lukashenko’s resignation represent an unprecedented challenge to the Belarusian leader’s 26-year rule.

Kolesnikova is a leading member of the Coordination Council created by opposition activists to push for a new election. She was detained Monday and destroyed her passport in a no-man’s land between Ukraine and Belarus the next day to prevent her expulsion.

Kolesnikova, who remains jailed in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, is accused of undermining national security as part of a criminal probe against senior members of the opposition Coordination Council. She faces up to five years in prison, if convicted.

All of the council’s senior members except for Nobel Prize-winning writer Svetlana Alexievich have been jailed or forcibly expelled from the country. Unidentified people attempted Wednesday to enter Alexievich’s apartment in Minsk. Diplomats from several European Union nations gathered there to prevent her detention and returned Thursday evening.

A statement from the European Union’s office in Belarus said the diplomats “admire the courage and persistence of Ms. Alexievich and all other members of Belarus’ Coordination Council and other citizen initiatives in voicing their demands for rule of law in Belarus, for the dignity of their people and for the sovereignty and independence of their country.”

Speaking to prosecutors on Thursday, Lukashenko urged them to take tougher action to end ongoing protests.

“You must not only give a legal assessment to the actions of their organizers and agitators, but mount a stronger, more powerful prosecutorial response,” he said.

The 66-year-old former state farm director firmly shrugged off the opposition demands to step down. Lukashenko has rejected demands from the United States and the European Union to engage in a dialogue with the opposition. The U.S. and the EU have criticized last month’s presidential election in Belarus as neither free nor fair.

“I want to say it in a manly way to avoid any misunderstanding,” he said. “They often lament that ‘He wouldn’t give up power.’ And they rightfully do so. People haven’t elected me for that. The power is given not to take it and then give it away. No one will dare to throw the government into the dirt.”

Hundreds of protesters demonstrated on Thursday evening in Minsk, according to the human rigths group Viasna. There were no immediate reports of detentions.

Daily protests in Belarus have continued since election night despite police crackdowns and government threats. Several dozen employees of a huge potash factory in Soligorsk held a rally Thursday. One worker handcuffed himself in a mine, demanding Lukashenko’s resignation.

Workers at the Belaruskali factory, which accounts for one-fifth of the world’s potash fertilizer output and is the nation’s top cash earner, launched a strike last month. Authorities quickly ended it and detained the action’s organizer.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s main election challenger, on Thursday called for Soligorsk workers to again go on strike.

“I know that you are under a lot of pressure, but now a lot depends on us all. Remember that strikes are one of the most effective ways of protest,” she said from Lithuania, where she fled after the election.

Facing Western criticism, Lukashenko has sought to strengthen ties with his main ally and sponsor, Russia, trying to cast the protests against his rule as a plot by the West to weaken and isolate Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he stands ready to send police to Belarus if protests turn violent.

The neighboring countries have a union agreement envisaging close political, economic and military ties. The Kremlin said that Lukashenko is expected to visit Moscow later this month for talks on strengthening the union.

On Thursday, the Lithuanian parliament adopted a resolution that underlined a refusal to recognize Lukashenko as Belarus’ legitimate leader. The resolution calls on the international community to treat any agreements he signs with Russia as a crime against his nation and a de facto annexation of Belarus.

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Vladimir Isachenkov and Jim Heintz in Moscow, Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania, and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, contributed to this report.

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

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