European Council President Charles Michel has called for faster consideration of sanctions against officials in Belarus after the detention of multiple opposition leaders.
“Political persecution in Belarus including detentions on political grounds and forced exile must stop,” Michel tweeted Wednesday. “Belarusian authorities must free political prisoners and let citizens exercise their right to freedom of speech and assembly.”
Unidentified Belarusian authorities on Wednesday detained one of the two remaining free leaders of an opposition council amid continuing protests against longtime President Alexander Lukashenko following a disputed election.
Attorney Maxim Znak was taken out of the Coordination Council’s office by unknown people wearing ski masks, according to his associate, Gleb German.
Znak’s detention came as Lukashenko tried to end protests against him. German said Znak managed to text “masks” before his phone was seized.
Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature, is now the only council executive to remain free in Belarus, even after unidentified people tried to enter her apartment on Wednesday.
Several European Union diplomats and journalists arrived at her apartment in Minsk to prevent her detention. Alexievich told reporters she does not plan to leave Belarus.
"What is happening is terror against the people," Alexievich said. "We have to unite and not give up our intentions. There is a danger we will lose the country."
Thousands of people have taken part in five weeks of protests following the August 9 election in which Lukashenko was declared the winner. Opposition parties, the United States and the European Union allege the election was rigged.
Lukashenko denies the voting was fraudulent and blamed the unrest on meddling by Western countries. Russian news agencies quoted him this week saying he has nothing to discuss with the opposition, and that he would be open to constitutional reforms and a potential new presidential election.
Lukashenko’s election opponent, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, has left the country.
More than 7,000 protesters have been arrested, and widespread evidence of abuse and torture has been reported. At least four people are reported to have died during the demonstrations.
During a meeting in Estonia on Wednesday, the foreign ministers of the Nordic Baltic nations called on Belarusian authorities to end the crackdown and the prosecution of activists.
Alexievich was questioned last month by Belarusian investigators, who have launched a criminal investigation into the Coordination Council members who investigators say are undermining national security by demanding a transfer of power.
Several council members have been arrested, and others were forcibly expelled from the country.
On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States is deeply concerned about the Belarusian government’s attempts to forcibly expel opposition activist Maria Kolesnikova. Pompeo said the United States and other countries are considering bringing sanctions in response to recent events in Belarus.
“We commend the courage of Ms. Kolesnikova and of the Belarusian people in peacefully asserting their right to pick their leaders in free and fair elections in the face of unjustified violence and repression by the Belarusian authorities, which included brazen beatings of peaceful marchers in broad daylight and hundreds of detentions (on) September 6, as well as increasing reports of abductions,” Pompeo said in a statement.
Pompeo said the potential sanctions would be aimed at promoting “accountability for those involved in human rights abuses and repression in Belarus.”
Kolesnikova was detained Monday, along with opposition movement members Anton Rodnenkov and Ivan Kravtsov. They were driven to the border between Belarus and Ukraine on Tuesday where Kolesnikova tore up her passport and was held on the Belarusian side.
Rodnenkov and Kravtsov did cross into Ukraine.
“She was shouting that she won’t go anywhere,” Rodnenkov said at a news conference in Kyiv. “Sitting in the car, she saw her passport on a front seat and tore it into many small fragments, crumpled them and threw them out of the window. After that, she opened the back door and walked back to the Belarusian border.”
A spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a statement expressing his concern about “the repeated use of force against peaceful protesters, as well as reported pressures on opposition civil society activists.”