Minsk, Belarus: Belarus has angered the world community by intercepting a Ryanair flight with a fighter jet in order to apprehend opposition blogger Roman Protasevich.
He is one of the hundreds detained in the aftermath of last August’s major rallies against autocratic President Alexander Lukashenko, with authorities claim that 400 opponents had been convicted as of March.
Protasevich, who is wanted in Belarus for his involvement in broadcasting last year’s massive opposition protests in Minsk, didn’t have much time to escape.
We examine how Lukashenko has crushed criticism by imprisoning or exiling journalists and activists.
Rivals are imprisoned
Lukashenko ran for re-election to a sixth term as president in August, with several popular opposition candidates running for the first time.
Blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky and former banker Viktor Babaryko are among them.
Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron grip since 1994, is jittery in the run-up to the election.
On May 29, Tikhanovsky was arrested for breaking public order. He risks a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.
Mikola Statkevich, a well-known opposition figure, was arrested two days later.
Babaryko gets arrested in June. On February 17, 2021, he will stand trial on charges of accepting bribes and money laundering.
Maria Kolesnikova, Babaryko’s closest aide, emerges as one of the protest leaders. She was arrested and imprisoned on September 8 after refusing to go into exile.
Local media reported on Friday that “For Freedom” activist Vitold Ashurok died of a heart attack in a correctional colony in the country’s east. He was 50 years old at the time.
Belarus also sentenced seven activists, including leading opposition member Pavel Severinets, to prison terms ranging from four to seven years for participating in “mass disturbances” on Tuesday.
The crackdown shifts to the media in early 2021.
On February 18, two journalists from the opposition channel Belsat, Katerina Bakhvalova, and Daria Chultsova, were sentenced to two years in prison for covering one of last year’s protests.
A fortnight later, a court sentences journalist Katerina Borisevich to six months in prison for releasing the medical data of a demonstrator who died during the protests.
In mid-May, two more Belarusian journalists, including a freelance reporter for German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, are arrested and detained for 20 days, claiming torture in pre-trial detention.
Tut.by, the country’s largest independent news organization, announced on May 18 that 15 of its staff, including journalists, editors, and accountants, were seized in a raid on its headquarters, during which the site was shut down.
Following his dramatic arrest when his flight was forced to land in Minsk on Sunday, Belarusian state media broadcasts a 30-second video of blogger and journalist Protasevich “confessing” to charges of organizing public disturbance.
According to the Belarus Association of Journalists, 34 journalists are currently detained.
Compelled to live in exile
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the opposition leader who has emerged as the face of the protests, has been living in exile in Lithuania since August 11, two days after the contested election.
She only became involved in politics after her husband, Tikhanovsky, was imprisoned. She declared victory over Lukashenko and demanded that he relinquish power.
“It’s clear that my departure was not voluntary,” she told AFP in late September.
Veronika Tsepkalo, whose husband was exiled after attempting to overthrow Lukashenko, also left.
When Lukashenko’s dictatorship began to a crackdown in the last days of the campaign, arresting a dozen of their supporters, she made the decision. Eventually, the couple was compelled to relocate to Poland.
Lawyer Olga Kovalkova also traveled to Poland. She claimed she was detained, intimidated by the KGB, and then released at the Polish border.
Former cultural minister Pavel Latushko, who joined the opposition, also sought asylum in Poland.
Protasevich, a blogger, moved to Europe in 2019 and co-founded the Nexta Telegram channels, a prominent Belarus opposition media outlet that helped mobilize demonstrators.
Along with the other co-founder of the channel, Stepan Putilo, he split his time between Lithuania and Poland. Minsk requested the extradition of the two journalists from Poland in late 2020.
Lukashenko: Belarus autocrat determined to retain power
Belarusian autocrat Alexander Lukashenko has retained his grip on power for nearly 30 years by hounding opponents, jailing and allegedly torturing dissidents, and muzzling independent media.
Lukashenko’s latest gambit — re-routing an EU passenger plane with an opposition journalist on board — drew ire from Western leaders who vowed their toughest response yet to his regime, long accused of serious rights violations.
He weathered historic opposition protests last year but has had to lean increasingly heavily on Russian President Vladimir Putin to remain at the helm of his ex-Soviet country and has further alienated the West.
In the wake of the demonstrations, which erupted after his claim to a sixth term in a presidential election in August, the 66-year-old moved swiftly to snuff out civil society in order to rout vestiges of dissent.
That clampdown had already spurred sanctions on his regime from the European Union and Washington.
But after Lukashenko on Sunday scrambled a MiG-29 jet to forcefully land a European plane in Minsk and arrest opposition journalist and activist Roman Protasevich, Western leaders vowed a firmer response and more penalties.
They accused Lukashenko of having carried out an “act of state terrorism”, banned Belarusian airlines from the EU, and urged carriers based in the bloc not to fly over its airspace.
The mustachioed leader — often dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” — has yet to speak about the incident, but Belarusian officials said Lukashenko personally ordered the fighter jet to intercept one of his most important opponents.
Analysts said that Lukashenko, who is known for erratic behavior and eyebrow-raising pronouncements, nonetheless had had a clear goal in mind with the forced landing.
“The regime wants to strike terror into the minds of the opposition,” said Timothy Ash, a senior emerging markets strategist at London-based Bluebay Asset Management.
The protests last year were seen as the most significant challenge to Lukashenko’s 27-year rule, but they had since lost momentum following his sweeping efforts to silence criticism.
Several people died during the unrest in the wake of the election, thousands were detained, hundreds reported torture in prison.
Some opposition leaders received lengthy prison terms. Others, like Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who claims to have won the August polls, were forced from the country.
At the height of the protests, Lukashenko viewed one rally from a helicopter in a bullet-proof vest and carrying a Kalashnikov, describing the demonstrators as “rats”.
In February, having weathered the demonstrations, he told loyalists at a congress in Minsk that the country had fended off a Western-orchestrated “Blitzkrieg”.
“We held on to our country,” he said at the conference, at which he also delayed promised reforms.
Soviet time warp
In power since 1994, Lukashenko has kept his landlocked homeland wedged between Russia and EU member Poland largely stuck in a Soviet time warp.
A quarter of a century after the collapse of the USSR, Belarus still has a security service called the KGB, adheres to a largely command economy, and looks to former master Moscow as its main creditor and energy provider.
His authoritarian streak stretches to his views on women, and he said ahead of the vote last year that Belarus could not possibly have a woman leader.
Rights group Amnesty International accused Lukashenko’s government of “misogyny” and targeting female activists with discriminatory tactics.
He concluded a 2012 argument over rights with Guido Westerwelle, Germany’s openly gay foreign minister at the time, by saying: “Better to be a dictator than gay.”
His youngest son Nikolai has since he was a toddler, routinely appeared with Lukashenko at state functions and on official foreign trips, raising speculation he might be grooming a successor.
While Belarus remains the most closely aligned former Soviet republic to Moscow, Lukashenko insists he is no Kremlin patsy, often switching from speaking Russian to Belarusian to show his independence.
Lukashenko watched with worry as Moscow seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and to distance himself from Moscow, he dangled the promise of political and social change long demanded by the West.
But since the protests erupted, he has warmed again to closer ties with Putin and the two leaders have discussed deeper integration, even though Lukashenko has ruled out outright unification.
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