The Belarusian leader denies repression a year after the vote was challenged


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KIEV, Ukraine – Belarus’s authoritarian leader on Monday denied that his government launched a crackdown on dissent after his re-election a year ago sparked a months-long wave of mass protests, and vowed to withdraw “very soon”, but did not say when right.

President Alexander Lukashenko held an annual press conference on the occasion of the one-year anniversary of the vote, at which he was given a sixth term, but the opposition and the West condemned it as rigged.

In his introductory speech, Lukashenko defended the election and accused the opposition of preparing a coup.

“At that time, we were preparing for the elections and the elections themselves in the conditions of complete transparency and democratization of political life,” Lukashenko said. “The only difference was that some were preparing for fair elections and others who were calling for the break-up of the government (preparing) for a coup.”

Belarus has been rocked by months of protests sparked by Lukashenko’s re-election, the largest of which has gathered up to 200,000 people. Belarusian authorities responded to the protests with a relentless crackdown in which more than 35,000 people were arrested and thousands were beaten by police. Leading opposition figures have been imprisoned or forced to leave the country.

Lukashenko, who ruled Belarus with an iron fist for 27 years, condemned his opponents as foreigners and accused the United States and its allies of planning to overthrow his government.

He vaguely promised to step down after Belarus adopts a new constitution, but remained silent when that could happen. Lukashenko said on Monday that it would happen “very soon”.

Authorities have stepped up crackdown on dissent in recent months, targeting independent journalists and pro-democracy activists with incursions and arrests, and sometimes going to extremes such as diverting planes to the capital Minsk and arresting dissidents on board.

However, the leader of Belarus stated on Monday that “there has been no repression in my country, nor will there ever be.” Lukashenko added: “Releasing repression in Belarus means (just like) killing oneself. I know that well and I will never cross that line. “

Pressure to disagree has angered the international community, and the United States and the European Union have hit Belarus with sanctions against top government officials and key sectors of the country’s economy.

In response to the sanctions, Lukashenko said his country would not try to stop the flow of illegal migrants to the EU. In recent months, Lithuania has faced an increase in mostly Iraqi migrants, which it blames on the Lukashenko government.

On Monday, the president also threatened to suspend co-operation with the United States in the fight against the smuggling of radioactive materials if sanctions pressure continues.

“Who needs some dirty explosives in the European Union?” Lukashenko said, citing the increase in migrants as an example of retaliating from Western pressure. “We don’t blackmail, we don’t threaten, we are forced to react,” he said.

Belarus regained international attention last week. At the Tokyo Games, a Belarusian Olympic sprinter accused the country’s officials of trying to get her back on a plane to Belarus after she publicly criticized her team’s management at the Games. Krystsina Tsimanouskaya refused to board the plane and sought refuge in Poland instead.

In his first comment on the incident, Lukashenko accused her of being a foreigner, saying that “she would not have done it herself if she had not been manipulated.”

Around the same time, a Belarusian activist who led a group in Ukraine helping Belarusians fleeing persecution was found hanged in Kiev, and his allies claim that Belarusian authorities were behind his death.

On Monday, Lukashenko denied the allegations and asked Ukraine to investigate the death of Vitaly Shishov. “It simply came to our notice then. But if you have accused us, (put) the facts on the table. The facts are on the table! “He said.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s biggest candidate in last year’s election who left Belarus under government pressure and is now in exile in Lithuania, said on Monday that the “regime” in Minsk had turned “terrorist” and called on Western countries to impose additional sanctions on Belarus. .

“We expect the United States, Britain and Canada to announce coordinated sanctions against the regime soon,” she said at a joint briefing with Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielus Landsbergis in Vilnius, adding that her team is working to “bring the international regime crime tribunal closer.”

Landsbergis said that “the pressure on the Belarusian regime must not be eased”, adding that the international community should not recognize any international agreements signed by “illegal President” Lukashenko.

Britain announced on Monday the tightening of economic sanctions against Belarus. The measures target trade with Belarusian state-owned companies, government finances and aviation, including a ban on British companies providing technical assistance to Lukashenko’s luxury aircraft fleet, the British Office for Foreign Affairs, Commonwealth and Development said on Monday.

Other Western officials marked the election anniversary with messages of support for the people of Belarus.

European Council President Charles Michel tweeted that the EU “stands firmly” with Belarus and “will continue to do so”.

Leaders of the Committee on Human Rights of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe expressed concern “over the deteriorating situation in the country” and called for “urgent steps to end the human rights crisis”.

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Contributed by Associated Press writer Daria Litvinova in Moscow and Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania.

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