Belarusian protest leader Maria Kalesnikava, taken into custody in Belarus last week, has been charged with endangering national security, the country’s investigative agency announced on Wednesday.
She faces up to five years in prison under the charge in accordance with Belarusian law. Kalesnikava engaged in “calls for actions directed at inflicting harm to the national security of the Republic of Belarus,” the Investigative Committee said in a statement posted on the Telegram messaging network.
“She remains in custody. An investigation is ongoing,” the statement said.
Kalesnikava is a close ally of Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who fled to neighbouring EU state Lithuania last month amid a violent police crackdown on opposition protests.
Tikhanovskaya pledged in an interview published late on Tuesday to ensure long-time President Alexander Lukashenko’s safety if he were to resign peacefully.
There have been protests in Belarus every day since the country’s disputed presidential election more than a month ago. Last weekend, at least 100,000 people gathered for a mass protest march in Minsk.
Asked whether Lukashenko’s personal safety would be guaranteed if he peacefully stepped aside, Tikhanovskaya said: “Yes, even more so,” according to an interview published by Ukrainian news outlet LB.ua.
Tikhanovskaya claims she is the rightful winner of the August 9 election. Within days of the vote, she fled to Lithuania amid a violent police crackdown on the protesters.
Tikhanovskaya has maintained that the protests should remain peaceful. The election’s disputed official tally gave Lukashenko more than 80 per cent of the votes. Tikhanovskaya and her supporters claim it was rigged.
The European Union has denounced the election as “neither free nor fair” and condemned the crackdown on the protests, saying “state authorities deployed disproportionate and unacceptable violence.”
Russia, Belarus’ closest ally, has thrown its weight behind Lukashenko, with Russian President Vladimir Putin promising earlier this week to provide a 1.5-billion-dollar credit line to Lukashenko’s government.
Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, visited Minsk on Wednesday to “discuss matters of bilateral military collaboration,” state media reported. Russian and Belarusian forces have been conducting previously planned joint exercises this week.
A Russian official also accused the United States of fomenting the protests in order to overthrow Lukashenko.
The head of Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, Sergei Naryshkin, said the US had made a “poorly disguised attempt” to organize a revolution and an unconstitutional coup, which were not in Belarusians’ best interests, in remarks reported by TASS state news agency.
Naryshkin said the US had spent millions of euros funding NGOs in Belarus and building up a network of “supposedly independent bloggers.”
Tikhanovskaya rejected this analysis, and said people were protesting because Lukashenko had lost the vote but did not want to resign.
Lukashenko has also blamed foreign powers for the protests, naming Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine alongside the US.