The lawyer, Lyudmila Kazak was defending Maria Kolesnikova, a key member of a council Belarus’ political opposition set up to push for a new presidential election.

In this August 30, 2020, file photo, Maria Kolesnikova, one of Belarus' opposition leaders, centre, gestures, during a rally in Minsk, Belarus.
In this August 30, 2020, file photo, Maria Kolesnikova, one of Belarus' opposition leaders, centre, gestures, during a rally in Minsk, Belarus. (AP)

Authorities in Belarus have detained a lawyer representing a top opposition activist who was jailed this month amid mass protests against the country's authoritarian president, who won a sixth term in a disputed election.

The lawyer, Lyudmila Kazak, went missing on Thursday, with police confirming later in the day that she had been detained. According to Kazak’s lawyers, she faces administrative charges of participating in an unauthorised rally and resisting a police officer. A court hearing on Kazak's case started in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, on Friday afternoon, Belarusian media reported.

Kazak was defending Maria Kolesnikova, a key member of a council Belarus' political opposition set up to push for a new presidential election. Kolesnikova is facing charges of undermining state security that could bring a five-year prison term, if she is convicted.

READ MORE: Belarus opposition leader flees country amid crackdown on protests

Kazak relayed several messages Kolsenikova sent from jail, including allegations that law enforcement officers threatened to kill Kolesnikova and encouragement for protesters to continue anti-government rallies that have rocked Belarus for nearly seven weeks.

“Freedom is worth fighting for. Do not be afraid to be free,” one such message said. “I do not regret anything and would do the same again.”

Kolsenikova has said Belarusian security forces drove her to the border with Ukraine to try to make her leave the country, but that she tore up her passport.

Her lawyer's detention followed the arrest of Yegor Martinovich, chief editor of popular independent news outlet Nasha Niva. Martinovich is accused of slander against a government official and faces up to three years in prison.

Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians have been protesting daily since the August 9 presidential election. Official results extended the 26-year tenure of President Alexander Lukashenko, giving him 80 percent of the vote. Lukashenko's strongest opponent, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, got 10 percent support.

READ MORE: Top Belarus activist says authorities threatened to kill her

Both opposition members and some poll workers say the vote was rigged, and the United States and the European Union condemned the election as neither free nor fair. Many European countries refused to recognise Lukashenko as the legitimate leader after his unexpected inauguration earlier this week.

READ MORE: Lukashenko sworn in as Belarus president at 'secret' ceremony

Sanctions

The EU has been weighing sanctions against the Belarusian leadership but failed to agree on imposing them this week. UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said on Thursday that Britain would prepare targeted sanctions against those responsible for human rights abuses in Belarus.

READ MORE: EU says Belarus' Lukashenko not legitimate as UK prepares sanctions

The Baltic nations — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — expanded their own sanctions list on Friday, adding 98 more Belarusian officials, including judges and law enforcement officers, that are considered responsible for vote-rigging and violence against peaceful protesters. Officials on the list are not allowed to enter the three countries.

READ MORE: Baltic states slap sanctions on Belarus over alleged election rigging

Intensified protests

Anti-Lukashenko protests have rocked the country for almost seven weeks, with the largest rallies in Minsk attracting up to 200,000 people. During the first days after the election, police used tear gas, truncheons and rubber bullets to disperse crowds. Several protesters died, many were injured and nearly 7,000 were detained.

The response to street demonstrators intensified again this week, with police detaining hundreds and injuring many. Despite the crackdown, protests continued in Minsk on Friday, with groups of people in different parts of the capital forming human chains of solidarity and singing songs.

READ MORE: Belarus police detain hundreds as weekly protests continue in Minsk

Opposition blogs on the Telegram messaging app have called for a big rally in Minsk and other cities on Sunday, referring to it as “the people's inauguration of the real president" Tikhanovskaya.

In a video statement released on Friday, Tikhanovskaya said she supports “everyone who will take to the streets of their cities this Sunday."

“Together, we'll be able to achieve our goal: a new fair election. And as a result, an official, lawful inauguration,” Tikhanovskaya said.

Source: AP