Exiled Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has called the situation in her country "absolutely unacceptable" and pleaded for international pressure to dislodge embattled President Alexander Lukashenko who she said no longer represents Belarus.
In a virtual appearance before the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on September 8, Tsikhanouskaya urged international pressure including sanctions on Lukashenko and his government.
"My country, my nation, my people now need help," she said. "We need international pressure on this regime, on this one individual desperately clinging on to power. We need sanctions on individuals who issue and execute criminal orders that violate international norms and human rights. We need an immediate release of all political prisoners and to start a civilized dialogue in order to find ways for our country to move forward."
She added an appeal on behalf of Belarusians currently being victimized by the mass detentions, beatings at the hands of security forces, and apparent forced disappearances.
"I refuse — as millions of Belarusians — to accept that this is the fate of my country," she said. "I refuse, as do millions of Belarusians, to accept that the world will simply stand and watch these countless abuses of human rights, this blatant disregard for human dignity, this complete annihilation of any basic respect for human decency. I refuse, like millions of Belarusians, to stand down and give up."
Tsikhanouskaya told the PACE representatives that "countries and parties that make deals with Mr. Lukashenko do so at their own risk" and should not expect a subsequent, democratically elected government to uphold treaties "made against [Belarusians'] will by an illegitimate regime."
Tsikhanouskaya ran against Lukashenko in an August 9 election that the opposition says was rigged.
She fled to Lithuanian days later amid massive protests and rumors she had been slated for arrest.
Unprecedented daily protests have continued, calling for Lukashenko to resign and a new election to be held.
Her PACE appearance comes just hours after Belarusian authorities said they had detained a Tsikhanouskaya ally after she and two other opposition organizers mysteriously appeared at a checkpoint on the Ukrainian border amid fears they had been abducted in Minsk a day earlier.
All three are part of a Coordination Council pressing for a transition away from Lukashenko's 26-year rule.
PACE President Rik Daems recently called for "an all-inclusive national political process" in Belarus to ensure a peaceful and democratic transition.
Belarus is not a member of the Council of Europe, but since its guest status was suspended in 1997 the assembly has continued to hold a dialogue with Belarusian authorities and frequently invites Belarusian politicians to attend its committee meetings.
"It is symbolic that I speak today here at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, representing a country, Belarus, that is right at the geographic center of Europe. And yet I have to speak here as an outsider," Tsikhanouskaya said on September 8. "I firmly believe that this situation will not last long. The Belarusians are now fighting for the values that this organization is created to uphold — the human rights, democracy, and the rule of law — the very thing that the current regime in my country despises and mocks."
Lukashenko has refused to hold talks with his opponents and rebuffed calls to hold a new election.
Tsikhanouskaya was quoted by Reuters as saying that the apparent abductions of opposition Coordination Council members on September 7 looked like authorities were trying to stamp out protest momentum and intimidate the opposition.
Tsikhanouskaya is scheduled to visit Warsaw later this week to hold meetings with top Polish officials.
Lukashenko is doing his own travel, with plans to visit Russia "within days," a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said on September 7. Dmitry Peskov reportedly told TASS that "preparations are in full swing."