Belarus’s Lukashenko holds talks with jailed political rivals

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MINSK: Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko on Saturday (Oct 10) went to a jail run by the country’s KGB security service to meet his jailed political opponents, ostensibly to discuss plans for constitutional reforms.

The bizarre yet officially reported meeting saw the strongman sit down with opponents he has jailed for months for a conversation about his political course.

“I am trying to convince not only your supporters but the whole of society that one needs to look at things more broadly,” he said in a video snippet.

The European Union and United States have refused to recognise Lukashenko’s inauguration after he claimed a landslide win in an August vote – results contested by his main rival, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

A photo posted by Lukashenko’s press service on the Telegram messenger app showed Lukashenko sitting at an oval table with prisoners including Viktor Babaryko, a banker once seen as the strongman’s toughest rival in August elections but prevented from running and jailed.

Others in the picture include Liliya Vlasova, a lawyer who is a member of the opposition’s Coordination Council set up to ensure a peaceful transfer of power, and Vitali Shkliarov, a Belarusian-US strategist who worked on US Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and advised the Russian opposition.

All look pale and unsmiling.

“The aim of the president is to hear everyone’s’ opinion,” Lukashenko’s press service wrote on Telegram, adding that the participants agreed to keep “secret” the content of the four-and-a-half-hour conversation.

The opposition described the visit as a sign of weakness.

Tikhanovskaya wrote on social media that Lukashenko had “acknowledged the existence of political prisoners whom he used to call criminals.”

But she added that “you can’t have dialogue in a prison cell.”

Pavel Latushko, a member of the opposition’s Coordination Council, wrote on social media that the meeting “showed we are on the right track. Lukashenko was forced to sit down for talks with those he himself put behind bars.”

In a brief video excerpt, Lukashenko told the prisoners: “You can’t rewrite the constitution on the street,” referring to street protests.

Saturday saw the latest protest against Lukashenko, a regular event in which women hold peaceful marches, often carrying flowers.

Tikhanovskaya, who has taken refuge in Lithuania, said she had been allowed her first phone call in four months with her jailed husband, video blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, with whom she has two children.

Tikhanovskaya only stood as president after her husband’s detention meant he could not run.

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