A leading opposition activist and several other members of an opposition council in Belarus have gone missing, prompting fears of their illegal detention by the disputed incumbent Government.
- Maria Kolesnikova’s disappearance comes as Minsk steps up its crackdown on dissent
- Two more of Ms Kolesnikova’s colleagues also couldn’t be reached on Monday
- Critics say the disputed Government is trying to eliminate opposition forces “one by one”
Maria Kolesnikova, a member of the Coordination Council created by the opposition to facilitate talks with President Alexander Lukashenko on a transition of power, was reportedly put on a minibus in the capital, Minsk, and driven away by unidentified people.
Her disappearance follows a massive rally Sunday that drew an estimated 100,000 protesters pushing for the resignation of Mr Lukashenko, who extended his 26-year rule in the August 9 election that the opposition alleges was rigged.
A council member, Maxim Znak, said Ms Kolesnikova’s colleagues fear she was detained.
Two other members of the council also couldn’t be reached on Monday, according to Mr Znak.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius tweeted that Ms Kolesnikova’s disappearance is part of the Belarusian authorities’ effort to “cynically eliminate one by one” and called for her immediate release.
The Belarusian Interior Ministry denied Ms Kolesnikova’s detention, while other law enforcement agencies have stayed silent.
Disappearance comes amid media blackout
In recent days, Belarusian authorities have selectively arrested opposition activists and demonstrators, following a brutal crackdown against dissent in the days after the country’s disputed presidential election.
The European Union has already slapped sanctions on the Belarus Government in response to what it sees as a sham election result.
The latest crackdown on dissent comes amid the Government’s attempts to institute a broad information blackout across the country which began late last month when more than 50 news media websites reporting on the protests were shut down.
Then on August 28, 50 foreign reporters were detained by riot police reportedly to verify their documents.
A day later, a raft of European journalists including those from the BBC were stripped of accreditation.
Sunday’s demonstrations in Minsk and other cities went on despite the authorities’ warning that participants could face reprisals.
The Interior Ministry said 633 people were detained Sunday for taking part in unsanctioned protests.
Targeting the protest leaders, Belarusian prosecutors have opened a criminal probe of the Coordination Council that opposition activists set up after the election to try to negotiate a transition of power.
Two of its members were given 10-day jail sentences on charges of staging unsanctioned protests last week.
One of them, Olga Kovalkova, said she was pressured to leave for Poland over the weekend after being threatened with a longer jail term.
‘The more they try to scare us, the more people will take to the streets’
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition challenger in the election, who moved to Lithuania a day after the vote under pressure from authorities, said Monday that Ms Kolesnikova’s disappearance marked another attempt by the Government to intimidate the opposition.
“It’s an attempt to derail the work of the Coordination Council, but we will not be stopped,” she said.
Last week, Ms Kolesnikova announced the creation of a new party, Together.
She said the move will help overcome the current crisis, but the party founders’ call for constitutional changes has stunned some other opposition council members, who argued that it could divert attention from the main goal of pushing for Mr Lukashenko to step down.