Nobel Prize winning author questioned in Belarus as dozens of protesters arrested

A Nobel Prize-winning author was summoned for questioning Wednesday and police in Belarus detained dozens of demonstrators in a continuing crackdown on protests challenging the re-election of the country’s authoritarian ruler.

Svetlana Alexievich, who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature, is a member of an opposition council created to facilitate talks on a transition of power after President Alexander Lukashenko won a sixth term in the Aug. 9 vote that his opponents say was rigged.

Prosecutors have opened a criminal probe against the Coordinating Council members, accusing them of undermining the country’s security.

Alexievich insisted that she and other council members have done nothing wrong.

“Our goal is to unite society and help overcome a political crisis,” she told reporters. “We must win with our spirit and the strength of our beliefs.”

On Tuesday, two other council members were handed 10-day jail terms for organizing unsanctioned protests, and several others were called for questioning.

The United States and the European Union have criticized the Belarusian vote as neither free nor fair and urged Lukashenko’s government to engage in a dialogue with the opposition.

Ahead of a two-day European Union foreign ministers’ meeting starting Thursday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned that “it’s absolutely unacceptable that members of the Coordinating Council are arrested, interrogated and intimidated.”

“With the daily increasing repression against peaceful protesters the leadership in Minsk is increasingly sidelining itself,” said Maas, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the 27-nation bloc. “We won’t let serious human rights abuses and breaches of fundamental democratic principles go unanswered.”

Lukashenko, who has ruled the country with an iron fist since 1994, has dismissed protesters as Western puppets and rejected offers of mediation from the E.U. In a show of defiance on Sunday, the 65-year-old embattled leader toted an assault rifle as he arrived at his residence by helicopter, while protesters rallied nearby.

After a sweeping crackdown in the first days after the vote that caused public outrage and swelled the protesters’ ranks, Lukashenko has switched tactics and sought to quell the unrest gradually, with vague promises of reforms mixed with threats, court summonses and selective arrests.

In the first four days of post-election protests, police brutally cracked down on peaceful demonstrators with rubber bullets, stun grenades and beatings. Nearly 7,000 were detained, hundreds were injured and at least three people died.

Facing public outrage, police stood back for the next 12 days but again started detaining protesters this week. The Interior Ministry said 51 demonstrators were detained in Minsk and other cities on Tuesday.

Hundreds of demonstrators formed “chains of solidarity” in Minsk to push for Lukashenko’s resignation as the protests entered their 18th day Wednesday.

A wave of strikes at industrial plants across the country has posed an unprecedented challenge to Lukashenko who had relied on blue-collar workers as his core support base in the past.

The authorities have tried to end the strikes by pressuring workers and detaining the organizers.

In a bid to secure support from Russia, which has a union agreement with Belarus and sees it as a key bulwark against Western expansion, Lukashenko has accused NATO of harboring aggressive plans and beefing up its forces in neighboring Poland and Lithuania.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg dismissed Lukashenko’s claims as an excuse to suppress protests.

Amid the Western criticism, Russia and China have stood by Lukashenko and warned against foreign interference.