Belarus’ leading opposition figure Maria Kolesnikova was snatched by unidentified masked men in the streets of Minsk on Monday morning and driven away in a van, witnesses have said.
Kolesnikova, one of the three women who ran a campaign to challenge President Alexander Lukashenko at last month’s disputed election, is the last of the opposition’s prominent figures left in the country.
Svetlana Tikhanouskaya, the presidential candidate who claimed victory against Lukashenko in what is widely believed to have been a rigged election, has previously fled to Lithuania. Veronika Tsepkalo, the third woman in the opposition campaign, has also fled.
Kolesnikova has not been seen since her abduction was witnessed, and other members of her opposition Coordination Council have also gone missing in the hours since her disappearance.
Seriously concerned for the welfare of Maria Kolesnikova in #Belarus. Lukashenko’s regime must make her safe return their highest priority. The regime must cease brutalising protestors, release political prisoners and begin dialogue with the opposition— Dominic Raab (@DominicRaab) September 7, 2020
The abduction comes after an explosive weekend in Belarus, where 100,000 people protested at President Lukashenko’s residence in Minsk on Sunday, calling for him to step down.
The protests marked the fourth weekend of demonstration in Belarus, where there have been reports of police violence against protesters, and hundreds of arrests.
As the last remaining opposition figure in the country, Kolesnikova has been a vocal critic of Lukashenko and his authoritarian regime, and has supported the ongoing protests across the country.
Lukashenko has held power in Belarus for 26 years and denies that the presidential election on August 9 was rigged. He claimed a landslide victory against Svetlana Tikhanouskaya, saying he received 80 per cent of the vote. The European Union has not recognised the result, and has imposed sanctions on the country.
At the time, Tikhanouskaya said: “I will believe my own eyes – the majority was for us.”
“The authorities should think about how to peacefully hand over power to us. I consider myself the winner of this election.”