'Masked men' detain Belarus opposition lawyer as Nobel winner intimidated

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Belarusian opposition leaders Maria Kolesnikova and Maxim Znak are being held in custody, Belarus' investigative committee said on Wednesday, under suspicion of destabilising the country and harming its national security.
Maxim Znak was seen being led down the street near his offices by several men in civilian clothes and wearing masks. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MINSK (AFP) - Masked men on Wednesday (Sept 9) detained one of the last high-profile opposition figures still free in Belarus, his colleagues said, while Nobel Prize-winning writer Svetlana Alexievich complained of intimidation.

Mr Maxim Znak, who had worked as a lawyer for jailed presidential hopeful Viktor Babaryko, had been due to participate in a video call but did not show up, instead sending a message with the word "masks", Babaryko's press service said.

It said a witness had also seen Mr Znak, 39, being led down the street near his offices by several men in civilian clothes and wearing masks.

Along with Ms Alexievich, Mr Znak was the last of the seven members of the opposition Coordination Council's governing presidium to remain free in Belarus.

The council was set up to ensure a peaceful transfer of power after opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya rejected President Alexander Lukashenko's claim to have been re-elected to a sixth term in an Aug 9 vote.

Ms Alexievich, 72, told reporters that unidentified men in plain clothes were seeking to intimidate her by gathering outside her block of flats and ringing her door bell constantly.

"They called my house intercom system non-stop," she told reporters, pointing to two buses parked outside.

Diplomats from countries including Sweden and Lithuania joined the prominent author in her flat in a gesture of support.

Ms Alexievich said that security services were "snatching the best of us", referring to Mr Znak's detention.

On Tuesday, the most prominent opposition figure still in Belarus, Ms Maria Kolesnikova, was detained at the Ukrainian border after she prevented authorities from expelling her by tearing up her passport and jumping out of a car.

Others have been detained or forced to leave Belarus, in an intensifying crackdown by Mr Lukashenko's regime following the disputed election.


Ms Kolesnikova, 38, is the only one of the trio of women who fronted Ms Tikhanovskaya's campaign still in Belarus.

She went missing on Monday, with witnesses saying she was bundled into a minibus by unidentified masked men on the street in Minsk.

On Wednesday, Tut.by, an independent Belarusian news site, quoted Ms Kolesnikova's father as saying she had been arrested and was now in a central Minsk jail.

Unprecedented demonstrations broke out after Mr Lukashenko claimed to have defeated political novice Tikhanovskaya and won re-election with 80 per cent of the vote in the Aug 9 ballot.

Tens of thousands have taken to the streets for the past month to demand he resign.

Mr Lukashenko has refused to step down and turned to Russia for support to stay in power, while his security services have arrested thousands of protesters. Several people have died in the crackdown.


Ms Tikhanovskaya, 37, left the country under pressure from the authorities and was granted refuge in EU member state Lithuania.

On Wednesday, she met with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and said she hoped that Belarus's path to democracy would be "much shorter" than it was for Soviet-ruled Poland.

"It was a long road for Solidarity but I hope that for us it will be much shorter," she told students at the University of Warsaw before talks with the current leadership of the Solidarity trade union, which helped topple communism in 1989 after nearly a decade.

"We are witnessing something historic."

In a separate video address, she urged Russians not to believe propaganda trying to "poison" ties between the two peoples and thanked those backing Belarusians' "fight for freedom".

Her first major statement aimed at Russians came after Mr Lukashenko gave a wide-ranging interview to Russian state media on Tuesday.

"Let's not allow propaganda to poison ties between two friendly peoples, and unscrupulous politicians to damage the interests of both Belarus and Russia," she said.

No date has been set, but Mr Lukashenko is preparing to travel to Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Mr Putin quickly congratulated Mr Lukashenko on his re-election and has offered Russia's support.

In his interview with Russian journalists, Mr Lukashenko said he did not rule out calling early elections but it was too soon to set a date.

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