Belarus' prosecutors open probe against opposition activists

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Belarusian opposition supporters hold flowers and flash victory signs during a protest in Victory Square in Minsk, Belarus, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. Demonstrators are taking to the streets of the Belarusian capital and other cities, keeping up their push for the resignation of the nation's authoritarian leader. President Alexander Lukashenko has extended his 26-year rule in a vote the opposition saw as rigged. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

MINSK – Prosecutors in Belarus opened a criminal investigation 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 demanding his resignation as Western puppets, had threatened opposition leaders with criminal charges. Following up on his warning, prosecutors opened an inquiry against the new council's founders on charges of undermining national security.

The Belarusian Prosecutor General’s office said the creation of the Coordination Council that met for the first time Wednesday violated the constitution.

“The creation and the activities of the Coordination Council are aimed at seizing power and inflicting damage to the national security,” Prosecutor General Alexander Konyuk said.

The council members have rejected the accusations and insist their actions fully comply with Belarusian law. The United States on Thursday urged the authorities to engage in a dialogue with the opposition council and described the Aug. 9 presidential election that handed Lukashenko a sixth term as neither free nor fair.

The post-election protests continued in the capital of Minsk and other cities for the 12th straight day. About 1,000 protesters rallied on Minsk’ central Independence Square, chanting “Go away!” to demand that the country's leader since 1994 leave office. .

“The Belarusians have changed,” Olga Matusevich, a 29-year-old entrepreneur, said. “The protest will not end until Lukashenko steps down.”

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.