Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has called on the European Union to step up its support for embattled pro-democracy protesters in her country, as she picked up the bloc top human rights prize on behalf of a group of opposition figures.
“Without a free Belarus, Europe is not fully free either. We ask Europe and the whole world to stand with Belarus,” Tikhanovskaya told legislators in Brussels on Wednesday as she collected the Sakharov Prize, which was awarded by the European Parliament to the Belarus opposition in October.
Belarus has been gripped by four months of unprecedented anti-government demonstrations that erupted after a disputed presidential election in August which saw longtime President Alexander Lukashenko claim a sixth term in office with almost 80 percent of the vote, according to official results.
The 66-year-old’s opponents say the polls were rigged and that political novice Tikhanovskaya, who ran in place of her jailed husband, was the true winner.
Belarusian security forces have unleashed a harsh crackdown against the peaceful protests, detaining demonstrators and pushing opposition leaders into exile.
“I have only one wish this year,” Tikhanovskaya, who is currently based in Lithuania, said in her address to the chamber. “I want every Belarusian who is now in jail or was forced to live in exile to return home.”
The 38-year-old leader demanded a tougher response from Europe against Lukashenko’s government, as the man critics call “Europe’s last dictator” clings to power after more than a quarter of a century in charge.
Tikhanovskaya and her supporters refused to recognise the result of the August 9 election, saying the vote was riddled with fraud, and some poll workers came forward to detail rigging in their areas. The EU also refuses to recognise the results and has imposed sanctions on Lukashenko and several of his associates.
Police have used stun grenades, tear gas and truncheons to disperse the months-long rallies against the election. Mass detentions have continued despite international outcry over the government’s crackdown.
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, Tikhanovskaya thanked EU legislators for the recognition implicit in the prize, named after Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov and created in 1988 to honour 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 Belarusian opposition and said 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 is important for legislators to “be present on the ground, to have a better idea of the demands of the Belarus people.”