Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya accused the country’s president Alexander Lukashenko to use political prisoners as “hostages” as the EU prepares to increase sanctions on its regime.
About 35,000 Belarusians were arrested in the subsequent crackdown, many saying they were tortured. Lukashenko also targeted the media, forcing the Belarusian prime minister independent news portal offline. Last month, he scrambled a hunting jet to intercepts a Ryanair flight is arrested Roman Protasevich, a dissident who was on board.
Tsikhanouskaya told the Financial Times in an interview that the crackdown was “similar to Stalin’s,” and the worst Belarusians have endured since Lukashenko came to power in 1994, three years after the country declared the independence from the USSR.
“We can never imagine that the regime could be so cruel. Of course in the past we have had the oppression of demonstrations, but we have never had so many people. [being arrested]. People are really scared. They are afraid to go out, to live, ”the exiled leader said.
“The regime has now gathered as many hostages as possible to exchange in exchange for lifting sanctions.”
EU foreign ministers met later today to finalize the latest in a series of sanctions imposed on the Lukashenko regime since last year’s elections and the brutal crackdown on the EU. dissent which followed.
Diplomats said the FT On Friday, member states had provisionally agreed to target Belarus’s financial, oil, potash and tobacco sectors, which are considered a key source of foreign currency for the regime.
Tsikhanouskaya said it was important that the measures be spread in force. “If sanctions are imposed step by step, it is easier for the regime to find ways out,” he said. “But if they’re imposed in a coup, it’s much harder to evade them.”
The last round of sanctions was triggered by the arrest of Protasevich, who infuriated Lukashenko by playing a key role in signaling and coordination last year’s protests.
Since his arrest, Protasevich – with apparent bruises on his face and bruised marks on his wrists – has been stripped by the regime in a series of recordings and press conferences in which he praised Lukashenko.
Tsikhanouskaya condemned Lukashenko for the performances, claiming he was acting out of “hatred” and fear of change in Belarus, and said it was clear that Protasevich had spoken out under coercion.
“Roman is in danger,” he added. “His job is to survive here. No one can understand – especially people in democratic countries – how people are threatened [in Belarusian prisons]. It is also immoral to discuss the content of these press conferences or interviews. We’ll discuss how to release it, and that’s it. “
Human rights groups say that as a result of Lukashenko’s crackdown, there are now more than 500 political prisoners in Belarus. Among them is Tsikhanouskaya’s husband, Siarhei, who was arrested last year, thwarting his plans to run against Lukashenko for the presidency. Along with several other dissidents, including blogger Ihar Losik, he will face a closed hearing later this week.
Tsikhanouskaya said it was unclear what would happen to the hearing, given the captured nature of the Belarusian judicial system. However, he renewed his call for the release of all political prisoners, and added that the EU should not relax sanctions until it is obtained.
“In all my meetings I have ordered EU leaders: do not let the regime exchange with political prisoners. Everyone must be released,” he said. “Arrest at home is not freedom. Forcing people out of the country is not freedom. ”
Tsikhanouskaya said the only way out of Belarus’ political crisis was to cast a new, free and fair vote.
“When everyone is liberated, it doesn’t mean our crisis is over. Absolutely not. It’s a precondition for getting out of this crisis. But that’s all,” he said. “After the next stage is the dialogue with the regime and the new elections… New elections – this is the only way out.”