Navalny ‘murder’ in Russia gives green light for more activist killings, warns Belarus opposition leader

The death of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny in Russian custody could send a “green light” to authoritarian regimes to kill other political prisoners, exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said.

Ms Tsikhanouskaya took shelter in Lithuania in 2020 after she stood for office against Belarus’s incumbent president Alexander Lukashenko. Mr Lukashenko won what were widely described as “rigged” elections.

Her husband Siarhei remains in Belarusian custody after his arrest in May 2020 when he announced his intention to run against Mr Lukashenko, a close ally of Vladimir Putin.

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

Mr Siarhei, a prominent video blogger critical of the Belarusian authorities, has been kept incommunicado in the past year, his wife said.

His family has not received any news from the authorities about him in that time, and Navalny’s sudden death in prison has particularly affected Ms Tsikhanouskaya.

“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,” she said.

In March last year, a Belarus court sentenced Ms Tsikhanouskaya to 15 years in prison after a trial in absentia on charges including conspiring to overthrow the government. It came as part of a months-long effort by the Belarusian government to suppress dissent following major protests.

She called her conviction and sentence an act of vengeance by Belarusian authorities and vowed to continue to “fight for freedom”.

“If Lukashenko could, he would have jailed everyone,” she had added.

Mr Lukashenko has been in power in Belarus since 1994 and has announced he will run again for president in 2025. He allowed Russia to use Belarusian territory as a launchpad for Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, though is not believed to have committed Belarusian troops to the conflict directly.

Protests against his comeback to power in 2020 have died down after mass arrests.

“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,” Ms Tsikhanouskaya said, referring to the Soviet-era labour camps.

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

The country held parliamentary and local council elections on Sunday, which Ms Tsikhanouskaya said could not be considered an election. “It’s an imitation. It’s ritual for us, but not elections.”

The US has called the elections a sham, criticism which was dimissed by the top Belarusian election official, who asked Washington to look after its own affairs.

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