Belarus authorities on Monday announced a criminal probe against the nation's top opposition figure on charges of terrorism, a move that follows a sweeping police crackdown on protesters demanding the resignation of the country's authoritarian leader.
Belarus' Prosecutor General Andrei Shved said his office has launched a criminal investigation against Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the top opposition candidate who challenged President Alexander Lukashenko in a presidential vote in August.
Shved said in a statement that Tsikhanouskaya and several other unidentified people are suspected of attempting to stage explosions and arson attacks in the Belarusian capital of Minsk and other cities several days ago.
A spokeswoman for Tsikhanouskaya, who was forced to leave the country for neighboring Lithuania after the election, dismissed the accusations as “absurd.”
The opening of the probe came after officials arrested a suspect accused of attempting to stage explosions in Minsk and the nearby city of Barysau.
Sixth term in office
Belarus has been engulfed by protests ever since official results from the August vote gave Lukashenko a sixth term in office by a landslide. The opposition and some poll workers have said the election was rigged.
The massive demonstrations sparked by the vote were the largest and most persistent show of opposition the former Soviet republic has ever seen, with some of them attracting as many as 200,000 people.
More than 33,000 people were arrested during the protests, and many of them were beaten by police.
Last week, Tsikhanouskaya called for a new wave of anti-Lukashenko rallies to revive the pressure on the government after the winter break. Police flooded Minsk and cracked down on opposition supporters who tried to launch rallies on Thursday and Saturday, arresting hundreds.
Tsikhanouskaya's spokeswoman, Anna Krasulina, dismissed the new probe as baseless, noting that it comes amid a renewed crackdown. “We need an immediate response from the international community to the continuing violence," she said.
Belarusian authorities have previously accused Tsikhanouskaya of plotting violent riots — accusations rejected by her team, which emphasized that she has always supported only peaceful protests.
Earlier this month, Lithuania dismissed Belarus's demand to extradite Tsikhanouskaya, with the Baltic nation’s foreign minister saying that “hell will freeze over first.”