Leader of the Belarusian opposition Sviatlana ik ikhanuskaya blamed the country’s president Alexander Lukashenko to use political prisoners as “hostages” as the EU prepares to increase sanctions on its regime.
Some 35,000 Belarusians have been arrested in connection with the crackdown, many of whom say they were tortured. Lukashenko also targets media outlets, forcing Belarus’ main network independent news portal Last month he collided with a fighter to stop Arrested on a Ryanair flight Roman Protasevich, a dissident who was on a plane.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Tskhanuskaya said the repression was “Stalinist” – the worst Belarusians have suffered since Lukashenko came to power in 1994, three years after the country declared independence from the Soviet Union.
“We could never have imagined that the regime could be so brutal. Of course, in the past we had pressure on protests, but we have never had so many people [being arrested]”People are really scared. “They are afraid to go out and live,” said the exiled leader.
“The regime is now gathering as many hostages as possible in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.”
EU foreign ministers are due to meet today to finalize the latest sanctions they have imposed on the Lukashenko regime since last year’s election, followed by a crackdown on dissent.
Diplomats said to FT On Friday, member states temporarily agreed to target Belarus’ financial, oil, potash and tobacco sectors, which are seen as the regime’s main source of foreign exchange.
Ts Ikhanuskaya said that the measures may come into force. “If the sanctions are applied step by step, it will be easier for the regime to find a way out,” he said. “But if they are imposed at once, it is much harder to avoid them.”
The latest round of sanctions began with the arrest of Protasich, who infuriated Lukashenko by playing Coordinating the key role of reporting last year’s protests.
Since his arrest, Protasich, with obvious bruises on his face and thin traces of his wrist, has been paraded by the regime during a series of recordings and press conferences in which he praised Lukashenko.
Ik Ikhanuskaya condemned Lukashenko for wearing glasses, claiming that he was acting “hate” out of fear of change in Belarus, saying that it was clear that Protasich was speaking under duress.
“Roman is in danger,” he added. “It’s his job to survive there.” No one can understand, especially the people of democracies, how people are threatened [in Belarusian prisons]It is immoral to even discuss the content of these press conferences or interviews. “We have to discuss how to get rid of him.”
Human rights groups say there are now more than 500 political prisoners in Belarus as a result of the violence perpetrated by Lukashenko. Among them is Tsikhanuskaya’s husband Siarhey, who was arrested last year for thwarting his plans to run against Lukashenko in the presidential election. Along with several other dissidents, including blogger Ihar Losik, he is due to hold closed hearings later this week.
Ik Ikhanuskaya said it was unclear what would happen at the hearing, given the occupied nature of Belarus’ judicial system. However, he reiterated his call for the release of all political prisoners, adding that the EU should not ease sanctions until they do.
“In all my meetings, I have urged EU leaders. Do not allow the regime to trade with political prisoners. “Everyone should be released,” he said. “House arrest is not freedom. “It is not freedom to deport people.”
Ik Ikhanuskaya said that the only way out of the political crisis in Belarus is to hold a new, free and fair vote.
“When everyone is released, it does not mean that our crisis is over. Absolutely not. That is a precondition for overcoming this crisis. “But that’s it,” he said. “Then the next stage is the dialogue with the regime, the new elections. New elections. That’s the only way out. “