Belarusians put together to march in help of ‘political prisoners’

Earlier this week, the Belarusian authorities withdrew the accreditation of all foreign journalists.

Minsk: The Belarusians prepared on Sunday to take to the streets in support of the political prisoners of the former Soviet country. The last weekend march took place after Brussels and Washington imposed sanctions on the controversial re-election of the strong man Alexander Lukashenko.

The opposition movement calling for an end to Lukashenko’s rule has continued a wave of large-scale demonstrations since his controversial election victory on August 9. Every Sunday around 100,000 or more people take to the streets.

Russia has supported its longtime ally, Lukashenko, and is offering financial assistance and promising military assistance if events turn against it. Ahead of the final protest on Sunday, due to start at 11.00 a.m. GMT, Nexta Live, the opposition’s leading telegram channel that coordinated the protesters and has more than two million subscribers, called on Belarusians to march in support of “political prisoners” perform.

Nexta said the authorities have launched more than 250 criminal cases against Lukashenko’s potential rivals, activists, bloggers and ordinary Belarusians.

“The authorities have taken these people hostage,” it said. “We have not forgotten them and demand freedom for all political prisoners!” According to the Viasna rights group, there are now 77 “political prisoners” in Belarus, including opposition blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, who was not allowed to run for president, and opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova, who tore up her passport to prevent the authorities from entering deport them.

Also on the list is the Belarusian-American strategist Vitali Shkliarov, who participated in the presidential campaign of US Senator Bernie Sanders and advised the Russian opposition. He was arrested in late July when he was living with his elderly parents.

On Friday, the United States and the EU hit Belarus with long-awaited sanctions for rigging the vote and orchestrating crackdown on protesters targeting key officials – but not Lukashenko himself. Minsk swiftly announced “countermeasures” against the EU although it was not clear what they would look like or what or who they would address.

Earlier this week, the Belarusian authorities withdrew the accreditation of all foreign journalists. In recent weeks, the Home Office has used water cannons, tranquilizers and rubber bullets against peaceful protesters and arrested thousands of people, many of whom complained of torture and abuse in custody. Several people were killed in the process.

After blogger Tikhanovsky was imprisoned, his wife Svetlana Tikhanovskaya ran in his place and demanded victory over Lukashenko. After the 38-year-old political freshman sought refuge in EU member Lithuania, he made a diplomatic advance to rally support for the embattled Belarusian opposition.

She has already met French President Emmanuel Macron and will travel to Germany on Tuesday to meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel. Student Dmitry Demeshkevich, who planned to take to the streets on Sunday, said he was well aware of the sanctions and Tikhanovskaya’s upcoming talks with Merkel.

He said the sanctions were a gesture of support but “nothing more” as it was not clear whether Western punitive measures, including travel bans, would work. “It is better to start talks with Lukashenko about his exit,” he said.

“Europe can be a mediator, but we should get him to stop.” Lukashenko, who has ruled former Soviet Belarus for 26 years, has accused western countries and NATO of supporting protesters and trying to destabilize the country.

He put his military on high alert after the vote, and Belarus will host war games with several other ex-Soviet countries, including Russia, this month in what is touted as a show of force against NATO.

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