Blinken meets Belarus opposition leader as criticism mounts

Politics

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya speaks during her news conference in Vilnius, Lithuania, Wednesday, July 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State Antony Blinken met on Monday with Belarus’ main opposition leader as the United States steps up criticism of the government in Minsk for a widening crackdown on dissent following disputed elections last year.

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

“They discussed the ongoing repression, the crackdown by the Lukashenko regime and the steps that we have said, and much of the international community has said, that the Lukashenko regime must take,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters.

“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 stand with the Belarusian people and their aspirations for human rights, democracy, and their broader Euro-Atlantic aspirations,” he said.

Tsikhanouskaya is in Washington this week meeting with Biden administration officials and lawmakers to seek their backing.

Monday’s meeting came after authorities in Belarus widened the crackdown last week by raiding the homes and offices of dozens of independent media outlets and civic leaders, prompting condemnations by the United States and European nations. The country’s main security agency, which still goes under its Soviet-era name KGB, said those targeted were suspected of involvement in “extremist activities.”

“The ongoing crackdown on journalists and civil society is the Lukashenka regime’s latest brutality,” Price said on Friday. “We call on the Belarusian authorities to release their 550-plus political prisoners and engage in a dialogue with the opposition and civil society. We stand with the people of Belarus.”

Lukashenko, the longtime authoritarian leader of Belarus, has promised to “deal with” organizations that he accuses of fomenting unrest in the aftermath of the election and months of protests against his rule. Lukashenko was proclaimed the victor, cementing a sixth term in office, despite widespread complaints the vote was neither free nor fair.

Authorities responded to the demonstrations with a massive crackdown, including police beating thousands of demonstrators and arresting more than 35,000 people.

Overall, 32 Belarusian journalists are in custody, either 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.

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