Belarusian authorities on Wednesday detained one of the last leading members of an opposition council who remained free, moving methodically to end a month of protests against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Lawyer Maxim Znak, a member of the Coordination Council created by the opposition to facilitate talks with the country’s leader of 26 years on a transition of power, was taken out of the council’s office by unidentified people in ski masks, his associate Gleb German said. He said Znak only had time to text message “masks” before they took the phone away from him.
Belarusian prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into members of the Coordination Council, accusing them of undermining national security by calling for a transfer of power. Several council members were arrested and others were forcibly expelled from the country.
Maria Kolesnikova, a leading member of the Coordination Council, was detained Monday in the capital of Minsk along with two other council members and then driven early Tuesday to the border, where authorities told them to cross into Ukraine.
When they arrived in a no-man’s land between the countries, Kolesnikova ripped her passport into small pieces to make it impossible for the authorities to expel her. She remained in custody on the Belarusian side of the border after the incident, but her whereabouts were unclear.
Lukashenko has dismissed the opposition as Western stooges and rejected demands from the U.S. and the European Union to engage in a dialogue with protesters who see his August 9 re-election as rigged and demand his resignation.
After a brutal crackdown on protesters by police in the initial days after the vote that stoked international outrage and swelled the ranks of protesters, authorities in Belarus have switched to threats and selective arrests of activists and demonstrators.
Late Tuesday, Belarusian police dispersed a few hundred demonstrators rallying in Minsk in solidarity with Kolesnikova and detained at least 45 protesters, according to the Viasna human rights center.
In Washington, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement expressing concern about the attempt to expel Kolesnikova and warning that the United States and its allies are considering sanctions against Belarus.