Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya demanded on Friday an international mission to document what she called “atrocities” during crackdowns on anti-government protests but said she was ready to talk to end weeks of violence.
She addressed a highly charged debate on the Belarus crisis at the United Nations Human Rights Council, where envoys from Minsk and its backer Moscow faced off against EU delegations who are pushing for sanctions and investigations.
UN rights investigator Anais Marin told the session that member states needed to act to prevent a major geopolitical rift. “Let’s not allow another Iron Curtain to descend on the European continent,” she said.
Marin said more than 10,000 people have been “abusively arrested,” with more than 500 reports of torture and thousands “savagely beaten,” since President Alexander Lukashenko retained power after a disputed presidential election on Aug. 9.
Protesters say the vote was fraudulent. Lukashenko says he won the vote fairly by a landslide and dismisses accusations of abuses, which he says are part of a Western smear campaign.
Interruptions by Russia, Belarus reps
Marin’s speech was interrupted several times by objections from other UN members including Russian, Belarusian and other delegations who called a halt to her participation.
The UN Human Rights Council session will consider an EU draft resolution for UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet to monitor the crisis and report back by year-end.
Tikhanovskaya, in a video message to the 47-member state forum, called for the monitoring mission and said the government should hold another election.
“I once again emphasize our willingness to talk with the authorities and look for peaceful solution to the crisis that has affected our nation,” added Tikhanovskaya.
“We demand to immediately cease violence against peaceful citizens. We demand immediate release of all political prisoners,” she said.
Lukashenko won a sixth term with 80 per cent of the vote in an election without international monitors. The result has been seen as implausible given the crowds Tikhanovskaya was drawing during the campaign.
Jailed opposition member on hunger strike
Tikhanovskaya, 37, fled to Lithuania after the election. A political novice, she emerged as the consensus opposition candidate after better-known figures were barred from standing, including her jailed activist husband.
Tikhanovskaya is a leader of the opposition Coordination Council. In Belarus, another member of the group, politician Maxim Znak, declared a hunger strike in jail on Friday after being charged with calling for actions that could harm Belarusian national interests, the council said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Lukashenko’s main ally, agreed to loan Belarus $1.5 billion US at a summit on Monday, and the two countries are conducting joint military training exercises in Belarus.
Russia’s defence ministry said on Friday that special forces from Russia and Belarus had rehearsed a counterterrorism scenario involving freeing hostages from a building in their “Slavic Brotherhood 2020” drills.
It said more than 800 military personnel from the two countries were taking part in the training near the Belarusian city of Brest.
During the UN debate, Ukraine’s foreign minister warned Russia against taking steps that may undermine the sovereignty of Belarus and destabilize the region.
“It is heartbreaking to watch the footage of our close neighbours viciously beaten down and arbitrarily detained on the streets of their native cities,” Dmytro Kuleba told the debate.
On Thursday, the European Parliament voted in a non-binding measure to not recognize the election or Lukashenko’s legitimacy as president when his term expires on Nov. 5. The European Union could follow with formal sanctions.
As well on Thursday, 17 members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), including Canada, appointed an independent team of experts to investigate the alleged human rights abuse and elections fraud in Belarus.
Back in Belarus, a man set himself on fire on Friday outside a police station in the town of Smolevichi and is in a serious condition in hospital, the Interior Ministry said.
A police officer ran out of the station to douse the man with a fire extinguisher after he burst into flames and was writhing around in pain on the pavement, footage of the incident released by the ministry showed.
The reason for the act was unclear, but the man had a history of mental illness, the ministry said in a statement.