BRUSSELS – Former Belarus presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya urged the European Union to step up its support for embattled democracy protesters in her country, as she picked up the EU’s top human rights prize Wednesday on behalf of a group of opposition leaders.
“Without a free Belarus, Europe is not fully free either. We ask Europe and the whole world to stand with Belarus,” Tsikhanouskaya told lawmakers in Brussels as she collected the Sakharov Prize, which was awarded by the European Parliament to the Belarus opposition in October.
Holding aloft photographs of Belarusians who have rallied against authoritarian Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, protesters who often been detained and beaten by security forces, she dedicated the award to them. At the same time, Tsikhanouskaya appealed to the 27-nation bloc to be braver in its actions.
“Standing for democracy and human rights is not interference, but it is duty of each self-respecting country,” she told EU lawmakers, speaking in English. “Your solidarity and your voice are important, but it is actions that matter.”
Mass protests have gripped Belarus since official results from the Aug. 9 presidential election gave Lukashenko a landslide victory over his popular rival, Tsikhanouskaya, and a sixth term in office. She and her supporters refused to recognize the result, saying the vote was riddled with fraud, and some poll workers came forward to detail how the election was rigged in their areas.
The EU also refuses to recognize the results and has imposed sanctions on Lukashenko and several of his associates.
Belarus authorities have cracked down hard on the largely peaceful demonstrations, the biggest of which attracted up to 200,000 people. Police have used stun grenades, tear gas and truncheons to disperse the rallies. Mass detentions have continued.
According to human rights advocates, more than 30,000 people have been detained since the protests began, and thousands were brutally beaten. Four people are reported to have died.
In a speech punctuated by applause, Tsikhanouskaya thanked EU lawmakers for the recognition implicit in the prize, named after Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov and created in 1988 to honor individuals or groups who defend human rights and fundamental freedoms.
“What is a better recognition that we are free thinkers? What is a better motivation for us to keep going? We are bound to win, and we will win,” she said.
European Parliament President David Sassoli paid tribute to the Belarus opposition, and said that the assembly wants to send a fact-finding mission to the country in the next few months, along with representatives from other EU institutions.
“We see your courage. We can see the courage of women. We see your suffering. We see the unspeakable abuses. We see the violence. Your aspiration and determination to live in a democratic country inspires us,” Sassoli said.
He told reporters that it's important for lawmakers to “be present on the ground, to have a better idea of the demands of the Belarus people.”