Belarus strike leader jailed; opposition activist detained

Belarus strike leader jailed; opposition activist detained
Belarus strike leader jailed; opposition activist detained

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Aden - Yasmine El Tohamy - Belarus' authorities on Monday handed a jail sentence to a factory strike organiser and detained a leading opposition activist, part of a methodical effort to stifle weeks of protests against the country's authoritarian leader after an election the opposition says was rigged.

President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the 9.5-million nation with an iron fist for 26 years, has dismissed the protesters as Western puppets and rejected the European Union's offers of mediation. After a ferocious crackdown on demonstrators in the first days after the August 9 presidential vote that caused international outrage, his government has avoided large-scale violence against demonstrators and switched to threats and the selective jailing of activists to stem the protests.

Anatoly Bokun, who leads the strike committee at Belaruskali, a huge potash factory in Soligorsk, was detained by police on Monday and handed a 15-day jail sentence on charges of organising an unsanctioned protest. The factory, which accounts for a fifth of the world's potash fertilizer output, is the nation's top cash earner.

The Belaruskali strike committee spokesman, Gleb Sandras, said authorities had managed to halt a strike at the factory that began two weeks ago and all its potash mines are now working. He said agents of Belarus' State Security Committee, which still goes by the Soviet-era name KGB, had pressured workers to end the strike.

"KGB agents have inundated the factory, tracking down the most active workers and using various means of pressure," Sandras told The Associated Press. "The authorities have powerful economic instruments. They are blackmailing workers with mass dismissals."

Strikes at Belaruskali and many other leading industrial plants have cast an unprecedented challenge to Lukashenko, who has kept the bulk of the economy in state hands and relied on blue-collar workers as his main support base.

Belarus Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Nazarov acknowledged on Monday that the strikes posed a problem, but said all major industrial plants have resumed normal operations.

Bokun's detention follows the arrests of strike leaders at two other major industrial plants in Minsk last week. The organiser of a strike at the Grodno Azot, a major producer of nitrogen fertilizers, fled to neighbouring Poland to escape detention.

Seeking to stem the protests, Belarusian prosecutors have opened a criminal probe against the opposition Coordination Council created to negotiate a transition of power, accusing its members of undermining the country's security.

Last week, Belarusian courts handed 10-day jail sentences to two council members and summoned several others for questioning, including Svetlana Alexievich, who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature. Another leading council member, Lilia Vlasova, was detained by police on Monday.

"This is the government's response to our peaceful actions and offers of dialogue," council member Maria Kolesnikova said. "It means that protests will grow."

Belarusian authorities on Monday also denied entry to Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, the 74-year-old archbishop of Minsk and Mohilev. Yury Sanko, a spokesman for the Catholic Church in Belarus, said the Belarusian border guards kept Kondrusiewicz waiting for four hours on the border before turning him back to Poland.

Last week, Kondrusiewicz strongly criticised Belarusian police, who locked the doors of a Catholic church in the Belarusian capital of Minsk where several dozen protesters found refuge as police were dispersing a protest.

Both the US and the EU have criticised the August 9 election that extended Lukashenko's rule as neither free nor fair and urged Belarusian authorities to talk with the opposition - calls that the 66-year-old leader has rejected.

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