MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Prosecutors in Belarus opened a criminal probe Thursday against opposition activists who set up a council to negotiate a democratic transition of power amid massive protests against official election results that extended the 26-year rule of the country’s authoritarian leader.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has dismissed the protesters as Western puppets, had threatened opposition leaders with criminal charges. Following up on his warning, prosecutors opened a criminal investigation on charges of undermining national security.
A leading opposition figure also reported being threatened with arrest as post-election protests continued in Minsk and other cities for the 12th straight day. Demonstrators are challenging the official election results that showed Lukashenko winning a sixth term with 80% of the vote and demanding his resignation.
The Belarusian Prosecutor General’s office said the creation of the Coordination Council that met for the first time Wednesday violated the constitution and that authorities had opened a criminal inquiry against its founders.
“The creation and the activities of the Coordination Council are aimed at seizing power and inflicting damage to the national security,” said Prosecutor General Alexander Konyuk.
The council members have rejected the accusations and insist their actions fully comply with Belarusian law.
European Union leaders on Wednesday expressed solidarity with the protesters in Belarus and said they were preparing sanctions against Belarusian officials responsible for alleged election fraud and for police brutality against protest participants.
During the first four days of protests, police detained almost 7,000 people and injured hundreds with rubber bullets, stun grenades and clubs. At least three protesters died.
The crackdown fueled massive outrage and swelled protesters’ ranks, forcing authorities to change tactics and stop breaking up crowds that grew to an unprecedented 200,000 on Sunday.
After standing back for days, police again beefed up their presence on the streets of the Belarusian capital Wednesday, blocking access to some government buildings and also deploying in numbers outside major factories where workers have been on strike since Monday.
The industrial action that has engulfed major factories across the country cast a tough challenge to Lukashenko, who had relied on blue-collar workers as his core support base.
In a bid to stop the strike from spreading, Lukashenko on Wednesday said that the participants would face dismissal and ordered law enforcement agencies to protect factory managers from opposition pressure.
Hundreds of state television employees have also gone on strike, shaking the government’s control of the media.
The Belarusian leader also warned members of the Coordination Council that they could face criminal responsibility for their attempt to create “parallel power structures.”
The council called for a new presidential vote organized by newly formed election commissions and demanded an investigation into the crackdown on protests and compensation for the victims.
The opposition body consists of top associates of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who as Lukashenko’s leading challenger in the Aug. 9 election, as well as rights activists and representatives of striking workers. It also includes Belarus’ most famous author, Svetlana Alexievich, who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature.
The only former senior official on the council, Pavel Latushko, who headed a leading national theater and was fired earlier this week for siding with protesters, said he wouldn’t leave the country despite being threatened with arrest. The facade of his house in Minsk was splashed with red paint overnight.
“Yes, I fear the arrest,” Latushko, a former culture minister and ambassador to France, told The Associated Press on Thursday. “But I say that I haven’t made any criminal offense and I’m not breaking the law by expressing my opinion. I have no intention to leave the country.”
Another opposition council member, Sergei Dylevsky, the leader of striking workers at the Minsk Tractor Plant, also dismissed the official accusations as “total nonsense.”
“There is a sharp conflict between the people and the government, and we only represent a body that would try to mediate it,” Dylevsky said. “We aren’t aiming to overthrow the government and seize power, our goal is peaceful dialogue.”
Prosecutors summoned Tsikhanouskaya’s lawyer, Maxim Znak, who also sits on the council, to come for interrogation Friday as part of the probe.
Tsikhanouskaya, 37, a former English teacher who went to neighboring Lithuania after the election in a move that her campaign aides said was made under pressure, met Thursday with Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis, who promised to help “achieve free and fair elections in Belarus.”
Facing Western criticism, Lukashenko, 65, has turned to Russia for help. The two nations have an agreement that contemplates close political, economic and military ties, and the Belarusian president said he secured Russian President Vladimir Putin’s promise of security support, if Belarus needs it.
The Kremlin has warned the West against interfering in Belarus’ affairs but said that Belarus doesn’t need any security assistance for now.
Asked about the EU’s decisions, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reaffirmed Moscow’s warning against foreign meddling.
“We continue to convey our stance that we consider any foreign influence on the developments in Belarus unacceptable,” he told reporters.
Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, and Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of the political turmoil in Belarus at https://www.apnews.com/Belarus