The UK has been urged to use its “power” as a nation to strengthen sanctions placed on the Belarusian president and his regime amid ongoing concerns about human rights violations taking place in the country.
The leader of the Belarusian opposition Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addressed the Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday afternoon as part of a one-off evidence gathering session on the current crisis.
.Ms Tsikhanouskaya told the session: “This is the moment countries need to unite to put pressure on the regime.”
Two other panels of expert witnesses were invited to speak alongside Ms Tsikhanouskaya about what can be done stop the authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko and his Russian backers and to help create a democratic state.
The committee’s findings will be used to make recommendations to the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO).
Mr Lukashenko, who was elected to power in 1994, won re-election for a sixth time in 2020 with 80% of the vote, in a ballot deemed “neither free nor fair” by the European Union. The “fraudulent elections” sparked mass protest.
Ms Tsikhanouskaya said: “Last summer, people showed the regime it was ready to see the end of a dictatorship. After the fraudulent elections people went onto the streets to protest against stolen votes. The regime answered with cruelty, brutality and torture.
“Since August more than 35,000 people have been detained, there are hundreds of political prisoners. These detentions continue, and there are around 1,000 more every month.
“People are scared now, no one feels safe, and people have to consider if they are kidnapped what will happen to their children or elderly parents. And the borders are closed too so there’s no escape.
“But people are not giving up and they are continuing to fight. And while the demonstrations have stopped, they are using other ways to continue the uprising.”
Ms Tsikhanouskaya said workers have launched a labour movement ready for a national strike, and disaffected members of law enforcement still on the inside of the regime are providing information to the opposition.
Volunteers are also continuing the effort by holding small rallies and travelling to remote areas without internet connection and to see elderly citizens to show them “the reality” of the situation.
Mr Lukashenko has been placed under renewed scrutiny since May this year after a commercial Ryanair Flight to Belarus was redirected and grounded “on the basis of a false bomb scare” in order to arrest journalist and critic of the regime Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend.
Asked about her thoughts on the kidnapping, Ms Tsikhanouskaya said: “I was shocked, I couldn’t believe he created an international crisis over a matter of personal revenge. It was a really big mistake, and shows he was acting more out of emotion than strategically.
“We believe it was an example of the impunity he felt. No sanctions had been put in place since December and he felt he could cross this red line.”
Ryanair owner Michael O’Leary gave evidence to the Transport Select Committee on Tuesday morning, calling the diversion of one of his airline’s flights a “premeditated breach of all the international aviation rules”.
However, the aviation mogul said the continued ban on flying over Belarus would not be beneficial for the industry or its customers in the “long-term” and urged international authorities to work towards getting “appropriate assurances from the Belarusian and/or Russian authorities that this will never happen again”.
Ms Tsikhanouskaya thanked the UK Government for what it had done so far in supporting sanctions against Mr Lukashenko, and doubling financial support to human rights and community groups in Belarus – but said sanctions must now extend to individuals, including judges and prosecutors, as well as on businesses and oligarchs who financially support the regime.
She called on UK officials to keep Belarus on the international agenda and to take the lead in investigating the Government, also urging countries to prevent Mr Lukashenko in abusing Interpol to have dissenters extradited back to Belarus.
Others who joined in the conversation included Professor Philippe Sands QC, professor of public understanding of law at University College London, who highlighted the “serious violence” taking place in Belarusian prisoner camps.
Victoria Fedorova, head of NGO Legal Initiative, said that without any recourse for justice inside Belarus legal proceedings and sanctions started by other nations are their only hope.