KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Authorities in Belarus detained a lawyer representing a top opposition activist who was jailed this month amid mass protests against the country's authoritarian president, who won a sixth term in a disputed election.
The lawyer, Lyudmila Kazak, went missing Thursday, with police confirming later in the day that she had been detained. According to Kazak’s lawyers, she faces administrative charges of participating in an unauthorized rally and resisting a police officer. A court hearing on Kazak's case started in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, on Friday afternoon, Belarusian media reported.
Kazak was defending Maria Kolesnikova, a key member of a council Belarus' political opposition set up to push for a new presidential election. Kolesnikova is facing charges of undermining state security that could bring a five-year prison term, if she is convicted.
Kazak relayed several messages Kolsenikova sent from jail, including allegations that law enforcement officers threatened to kill Kolesnikova and encouragement for protesters to continue anti-government rallies that have rocked Belarus for nearly seven weeks.
“Freedom is worth fighting for. Do not be afraid to be free,” one such message said. “I do not regret anything and would do the same again.”
Kolsenikova has said Belarusian security forces drove her to the border with Ukraine to try to make her leave the country, but that she tore up her passport.
Her lawyer's detention followed the arrest of Yegor Martinovich, chief editor of popular independent news outlet Nasha Niva. Martinovich is accused of slander against a government official and faces up to three years in prison.
Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians have been protesting daily since the Aug. 9 presidential election. Official results extended the 26-year tenure of President Alexander Lukashenko, giving him 80% of the vote. Lukashenko's strongest opponent, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, got 10% support.
Both opposition members and some poll workers say the vote was rigged, and the United States and the European Union condemned the election as neither free nor fair. Many European countries refused to recognize Lukashenko as the legitimate leader after his unexpected inauguration earlier this week.
The EU has been weighing sanctions against the Belarusian leadership but failed to agree on imposing them this week. U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Thursday that Britain would prepare targeted sanctions against those responsible for human rights abuses in Belarus.
The Baltic nations — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — expanded their own sanctions list on Friday, adding 98 more Belarusian officials, including judges and law enforcement officers, that are considered responsible for vote-rigging and violence against peaceful protesters. Officials on the list are not allowed to enter the three countries.
Anti-Lukashenko protests have rocked the country for almost seven weeks, with the largest rallies in Minsk attracting up to 200,000 people. During the first days after the election, police used tear gas, truncheons and rubber bullets to disperse crowds. Several protesters died, many were injured and nearly 7,000 were detained.
The response to street demonstrators intensified again this week, with police detaining hundreds and injuring many. Despite the crackdown, protests continued in Minsk on Friday, with groups of people in different parts of the capital forming human chains of solidarity and singing songs.
Opposition blogs on the Telegram messaging app have called for a big rally in Minsk and other cities on Sunday, referring to it as “the people's inauguration of the real president" Tsikhanouskaya.
In a video statement released on Friday, Tsikhanouskaya said she supports “everyone who will take to the streets of their cities this Sunday."
“Together, we'll be able to achieve our goal: a new fair election. And as a result, an official, lawful inauguration,” Tsikhanoskaya said.
Daria Litvinova in Moscow and Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania, contributed to this report.
Follow AP's coverage of the protests in Belarus at https://apnews.com/hub/belarus