Belarus asks Lithuania to extradite opposition leader

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya fled Belarus for neighbouring Lithuania amid a crackdown on critics of President Alexander Lukashenko.

Tikhanovskaya challenged Lukashenko in a presidential vote last August that the opposition denounced as rigged [Heikki Saukkomaa/Reuters]

Belarus says it has requested the extradition of exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who was forced from the country last year amid a crackdown on critics of leader Alexander Lukashenko.

Tikhanovskaya, who challenged Lukashenko in a presidential vote last August that the opposition denounced as rigged, sought refuge in neighbouring Lithuania as Lukashenko moved to stifle dissent in the wake of his controversial election win.

The Belarus General Prosecutor’s Office said on Friday it had requested that Lithuania, a European Union member state, extradite her “to face prosecution for crimes against the governing order, public safety and the state”.

Investigators had earlier in the week accused Tikhanovskaya, who stood in the August vote in place of her jailed husband, of planning with associates to instigate riots and capture government buildings in Gomel, Belarus’s second-most populous city.

Tikhanovskaya has dismissed the allegations.

Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis responded that his country “has been and will be a brick wall behind which all democratic forces persecuted by regimes will find refuge”.

“We can say only one thing to the Belarusian regime: hell will first have to freeze over before we consider your requests,” he said.

‘The chair under Lukashenko is shaking’

Belarus’s move to launch extradition proceedings came after Tikhanovskaya on Wednesday said she expected mass protests against Lukashenko to start up again in the spring following a bout of rallies that erupted in the immediate aftermath of last year’s election.

Speaking to reporters during a visit to Finland, Tsikhanovskaya said a majority of Belarusians still thought Lukashenko should step down and they had spent the winter getting organised.

“The chair under Lukashenko is shaking,” she told Reuters news agency.

Lukashenko has been in power since 1994 and claimed a sixth term in office with 80 percent of the vote in August’s poll, according to official results.

Facing the biggest crisis of his rule since then, the 66-year-old has overseen a sweeping crackdown on the anti-government protests and dissent in the ex-Soviet republic.

Thousands were detained for taking part in the demonstrations, and journalists and rights defenders are facing a slew of legal cases, which have been condemned by international advocacy groups, for reporting on the crackdown.

The size of the protests dwindled over the winter and Lukashenko, who has promised to make unspecified reforms to the constitution, appears to have weathered the storm.

But Tsikhanovskaya said the opposition was talking to people in the Belarusian elites, the state administration and riot police, who “understand he [Lukashenko] is not the leader any more”.

“It is better for them to support the majority of Belarusian people,” she told Reuters.

“Lukashenko has put the country into a political, humanitarian and economic crisis.”

Lukashenko’s alleged vote-rigging and the crackdown on Belarusian protesters have prompted the United States and the EU to introduce sanctions against the country’s officials.

While in exile, Tikhanovskaya been meeting EU leaders and representatives of Western countries. Her team has also reached out to China and Japan.

The Belarus opposition is now “looking for friends everywhere”, she said on Wednesday.

Asked if she had tried to talk to Russia, which has played a key role in supporting Lukashenko, Tsikhanovskaya said the opposition had sent many messages since the August election but has not received a reply.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies