VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — Belarus’s exiled opposition leader vowed Saturday to persist fighting the country’s authoritarian regime despite intensifying repression that was thrown into high relief a week ago by the diversion of a commercial airliner and the arrest of a dissident journalist who was aboard.
“We are here today to express our determination to continue the struggle for freedom. We will not back down,” Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said at a rally of about 150 demonstrators in the capital of Lithuania. Along with Tsikhanouskaya, thousands of Belarusians have fled to Lithuania since authorities escalated a harsh crackdown on dissent last year.
Many other Belarusians have fled to Ukraine. About 100 of them rallied in Kyiv to denounce President Alexander Lukashenko, whose repression of opposition intensified after massive protests arose following an allegedly manipulated August election that gave him a sixth term in office.
“A North Korea is being built step by step” in Belarus, protester Syarhey Bulba said in the Ukrainian capital.
The diversion of the Ryanair flight and the arrest of 26-year-old Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend last Sunday epitomized Lukashenko’s harsh rule. Belarusian authorities said the plane was ordered to land in Minsk, accompanied by a fighter jet, because of a bomb threat received while it was en route from Athens to Vilnius.
Western countries have denounced the move as a hijacking and demanded freedom for Pratasevich. a founder of a messaging app channel that was widely used to coordinate protests against Lukashenko. He faces a potential prison term of 15 years.
The European Union has banned flights from Belarus in response. The long-term impact of that move is not clear, but many fear that it could drive Belarus into closer relations with Russia, which has dismissed criticism of the plane’s diversion. Lukashenko met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday and Saturday.
“From our point of view, the situation requires a thoughtful and constructive examination without hasty conclusions,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists on Saturday. “But this cascade of hasty conclusions, which were made by European capitals and in Brussels, rather suggests that this approach is not based on an attempt to really clarify the circumstances, but is based solely on emotions.”
Many observers warn that tougher EU sanctions would make Lukashenko easy prey for the Kremlin, which may use his isolation to push for closer integration. Some in the West have even alleged Russia was involved in the flight diversion — something Moscow angrily denies — and will seek to exploit the fallout.
The demonstrations on Saturday also marked the one-year anniversary of the arrest of Tsikhanouskaya’s husband, Syarhey Tsikhanousky, a popular blogger and activist who had planned to challenge Lukashenko in last year’s election but was arrested after a scuffle at a campaign rally that reportedly injured a police office. Tsikhanouskaya ran against Lukashenko in her husband’s place.
The protesters in Ukraine beat a portrait of Lukashenko with slippers, an echo of the slogan “Smash the cockroach” popularized by Tsikhanousky,
Last year’s protests in Belarus, some of which attracted as many as 200,000 people, arose after the country’s Aug. 9 presidential election, in which officials said Lukashenko, who has run the country since 1994, got 80% of the vote. Protests alleging the election results were manipulated immediately broke out, and Tsikhanouskaya fled to Lithuania.
The protests continued for months, a significant challenge to Lukashenko. Police cracked down harshly on the protests, arresting more than 30,000 people and beating many of them.
Although the protests died down over the winter, authorities have continued wide-ranging repression of opposition. The Vyasna human rights organization in Belarus said a bicyclist who was arrested at a race that officials deemed an unauthorized gathering has been charged with insulting the president for wearing a T-shirt denouncing dictatorship. The charge carries a possible 2-year prison term.
In the Belarusian capital, Minsk, several dozen people made a small show of defiance Saturday by marching down a main street carrying opposition banners.
Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv, Ukraine, and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this story
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