Belarusian Nobel winner questioned over opposition council

Authorities in Belarus have questioned the Nobel prize-winning author Svetlana Alexievich as part of an investigation into an opposition council created to facilitate a political transition in the country.

Alexander Lukashenko, who has been president for 26 years and is under pressure from protesters to step down after a rigged election win this month, has described the council as an attempt to seize power, and prosecutors have opened a criminal case.

Alexievich, who won the 2015 Nobel prize for literature for her non-fiction works that documented the lives of people in the former Soviet Union, is part of a seven-person presidium overseeing the council, and was called to give evidence as a witness.

“Our goal is to unite society and help overcome a political crisis,” she said as she arrived at the investigative committee building in central Minsk on Wednesday. “We must win with our spirit and the strength of our beliefs.”

She left shortly afterwards, saying she had refused to answer questions.

Last week the opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova said in an interview that Alexievich was taking part in sessions of the coordination council via telephone link rather than in person, owing to health issues.

In an interview with Radio Liberty this month, Alexievich called on Lukashenko to resign. “Leave before it’s too late, before you have plunged the people into a terrible abyss, into the abyss of civil war … Nobody wants blood. Only you want power. And it’s your desire for power that requires blood,” she said.

After two weeks during which huge protests against Lukashenko have been largely left undisturbed by police, authorities are again attempting to crack down. The interior ministry said 51 people were detained at protests across the country on Tuesday.

Other members of the coordination council have also been targeted. The former culture minister Pavel Latushko, one of the few regime-linked figures to join, was questioned for more than three hours this week.

The council issued a statement expressing surprise that investigators were working on this case but had not yet opened any cases into police violence in the aftermath of the election.

“We are calling on all officials who are making decisions about the fate of the country to stop burying their heads in the sand. Putting pressure on members of the presidium is just as pointless as hoping that Belarusians will forget about what happened or will forgive those who committed crimes,” it said.

Two other members of the council’s presidium, Sergei Dylevsky and Olga Kovalkova, were sentenced to 10 days in jail on Tuesday on charges of organising an illegal strike.

The EU has said it does not recognise the results of the election this month, in which Lukashenko claimed to have won 80% of the vote in comparison to 10% for his opponent, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

Widespread evidence of rigging led to huge protests, which only grew larger in response to police violence against protesters.

Tikhanovskaya fled from Belarus to neighbouring Lithuania in the aftermath of the vote after receiving threats. From there she has said she is willing to become a temporary “national leader” and oversee new elections, but Lukashenko has shown no sign of being willing to give up power.

The US deputy secretary of state, Stephen Biegun, met Tikhanovskaya in Vilnius this week and described her as a “very impressive person”.

Russia, Lukashenko’s closest ally, has stopped short of offering full backing to the Belarusian leader but is wary of the opposition, with the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, suggesting it wants to see “bloodshed” in the country.