Belarusian opposition leader says Navalny 'murder' a green light for activist killings

  • World
  • Monday, 26 Feb 2024

FILE PHOTO: Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya makes a statement in a video message on social media, following the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, on the day it was announced that he is dead, by the prison service of the Yamalo-Nenets region where he had been serving his sentence, in Munich, Germany, February 16, 2024, in this screengrab obtained from a social media video. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya/via REUTERS/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) - Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya warned on Monday that the death of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny in a Russian penal colony could send a "green light" for authoritarian countries to kill other political prisoners.

Tsikhanouskaya, who fled to neighbouring Lithuania in 2020 after running against incumbent leader Alexander Lukashenko, said she had been particularly affected by Navalny's death due to her family circumstances.

Tsikhanouskaya's husband Siarhei, a video blogger critical of the authorities, was arrested in May 2020 after announcing his intention to run against Lukashenko.

His family has stopped receiving any news.

"In the last year, he has been kept in incommunicado mode," Tsikhanouskaya told Reuters on the sidelines of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

"It means that I don't know anything about him. I don't know if he's alive, what his health is... Letters are not delivered, I hear my children every day asking when they are going to see their daddy because it's so painful."

"The murder of Alexei Navalny should be [seen] like a green light for other murders, because if not strong response now, it will be more bad news for those in prisons," she said in a plea, in English, for more pressure to release political prisoners.

The Kremlin has denied allegations by Russian opposition figures, the United States and Europe that Navalny was killed by the Russian state, describing them as unacceptable.

Belarusians protested for months in the wake of the 2020 vote that opponents say was massively rigged.

In power since 1994, Lukashenko is one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's closest allies and allowed the Kremlin to use Belarusian territory to launch its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Lukashenko, who announced on Sunday he would run again for president in 2025, has denied electoral fraud. The mass protests that followed the 2020 vote have died down after mass roundups and detentions.

"You can't see huge rallies in the streets of Belarus because people live in Stalin's time, like in the Gulag at the moment," Tsikhanouskaya said in reference to Soviet-era labour camps.

She said that people in Belarus were being detained for "wearing the wrong colour socks", speaking Belarusian or supporting the families of political prisoners.

Belarus held parliamentary and local council elections on Sunday, which the United States described as a sham. Tsikhanouskaya said the vote could not be considered an election.

"It's an imitation. It's ritual for us, but not elections," she said.

The ex-Soviet state's top election official dismissed the criticism on Sunday and told Washington to look after its own affairs.

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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