Blinken meets Belarusian opposition leader as criticism escalates

WASHINGTON (AP) – Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Belarus’ main opposition leader on Monday as the United States steps up criticism of the Minsk government for increased crackdown on dissent as a result contested elections last year.

Blinken met Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya at the State Department to show her support for her and other protesters demanding an end to the crackdown. Tsikhanouskaya was President Alexander Lukashenko’s main challenger in the August 2020 elections and was forced to leave the country after polls that the opposition and the West saw as rigged.

“They discussed the ongoing crackdown, the crackdown by the Lukashenko regime and the measures that we have announced, and a large part of the international community has said, that the Lukashenko regime must take,” the press State Department spokesman Ned Price.

“As you know, Ms. Tsikhanouskaya has been at the forefront of the opposition movement in Belarus, and we were happy to welcome her to the department today and to continue our efforts to support the Belarusian people. and its aspirations for human rights, democracy, and their broader Euro-Atlantic aspirations, ”he said.

Tsikhanouskaya is in Washington this week to meet with officials in the Biden administration and lawmakers to seek their support.

Monday’s meeting came after Belarusian authorities widened the crackdown last week by raiding the homes and offices of dozens of independent media and civic leaders, prompting condemnations from the United States and European nations. The country’s main security agency, which still bears its KGB name in Soviet times, said those targeted were suspected of being involved in “extremist activity”.

“The ongoing crackdown on journalists and civil society is the latest brutality of the Lukashenka regime,” Price said on Friday. “We call on the Belarusian authorities to release their more than 550 political prisoners and to engage in dialogue with the opposition and civil society. We are on the side of the Belarusian people. “

Lukashenko, Belarus’ longtime authoritarian leader, has promised to “deal” with organizations he accuses of fomenting unrest in the aftermath of the elections and months of protests against his regime. Lukashenko was declared the winner, securing a sixth term, despite numerous complaints that the vote was neither free nor fair.

Authorities responded to the protests with massive repression, including police beating thousands of protesters and arresting more than 35,000 people.

A total of 32 Belarusian journalists are in detention, serving their sentences or awaiting trial, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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