The Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has vowed that the country’s movement for democratic change will not give up, despite the arrest of two allies working for a peaceful transition of power.
Speaking to the European parliament’s foreign affairs committee from exile in Vilnius, Tikhanovskaya said the authorities had responded with threats and intimidation to the coordination council, set up by the opposition to bring about non-violent change. But she insisted it would not back down: “The intimidation didn’t work. We will not relent. We demand to respect our basic rights. We demand all political prisoners be free.”
Belarusian police arrested strike leader Sergei Dylevsky and Tikhanovskaya’s political aide Olga Kovalkova on Monday and summoned for questioning the Nobel prize-winning writer Svetlana Alexievich. All three are part of the seven-person coordination council.
As protests continue for a third week, it remains unclear whether the opposition will succeed in unseating Alexander Lukashenko, who claimed a landslide victory in a presidential election widely seen as neither free nor fair.
Tikhanovskaya, his main opponent, who fled to Lithuania as a violent crackdown began, said the opposition was willing to consider mediation from international organisations – an option Lukashenko has rebuffed.
She also said Belarus’s “revolution” had no geopolitical character and was neither for nor against Russia, nor for nor against the European Union. “It is a democratic revolution. It is the striving of the nation to decide for itself.”
Her intervention came as Belarusian and international human rights organisations appealed for United Nations intervention following the systematic mistreatment and abuse of Belarusians caught up in the brutal crackdown following this month’s vote.
In a letter to UN special rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, human rights activists said they have collected evidence from more than 450 prisoners who were “beaten, humiliated and tortured by law enforcement personnel” in police stations and jails.
The torture included ritual beatings, some targeting the lower back to force involuntary urination or defecation, dozens packed into cells meant for two people, as well as reports of the rape of male and female prisoners with rubber truncheons, the letter said.
The torture and ill-treatment was “widespread and endemic”, read the letter, which was co-signed by the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, the Belarus Helsinki Committee (BHC), the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).
“The current level of brutality and the scale of the abuse are unprecedented even for Belarus,” read the letter, which called on the UN to conduct a country visit to Belarus and urged the UN human rights council to call a special session to review the human rights situation in Belarus.
Lawyers have told the Guardian that hundreds of victims remain fearful of coming forward. “People are broken, afraid to leave the house even to go to the doctor,” one said.
In an interview, Gerald Staberock, the secretary general of OMCT, said: “The picture is grim. I think it underlines the systematic and widespread nature [of the abuse]. And we want the UN human rights system to get involved. It’s their task to deal with gross human rights violations and take action.”
The growing evidence of the scale of human rights abuses will be considered by EU foreign ministers meeting this week in Berlin will to discuss the bloc’s response to the uprising.
After a virtual summit of EU leaders last week, the European council president, Charles Michel, promised the EU would “shortly impose sanctions against a substantial number of individuals responsible for violence, repression and falsification of election results”.
But EU foreign ministers are not expected to agree a list of names when they meet on Thursday and Friday. Some diplomats fear acting too quickly to sanction Belarusian officials may drive them closer to Lukashenko, buttressing his position.
“Keeping this kind of sword of Damocles above the heads of those responsible might help them to consider their options,” an EU diplomat said. “The threat of sanctions might in itself be effective [in changing behaviour]”.
Agreeing a list of sanctions that is legally watertight and backed unanimously by all 27 member states is also a time-consuming process that was not expected to be complete by the end of the month.
The head of the EU’s external action service, Helga Schmid, however, told MEPs that “the idea [ on sanctions] is of course to take a decision on this very very soon”.
In comments that underscored the EU’s cautiousness about being depicted as meddling, Schmid said the protests in Belarus were “not about a binary choice between the west or Russia. There are no EU flags flying at the demonstrations and we must take this into account when we are considering what the EU can do.”