Missing Belarusian Opposition Leader Freed After Three-Day Detention

MINSK -- Three days after he went missing ahead of a large antigovernment rally, Belarusian opposition leader Mikalay Statkevich has been released from what he said was a KGB jail and returned home.

Speaking with RFE/RL and other reporters at his apartment in Minsk on March 27, Statkevich vowed to continue organizing protests against authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Statkevich is a former presidential candidate who spent nearly five years in prison after protests that followed a 2010 election that Lukashenka's critics said was rigged.

He went missing early on March 25, hours before thousands of people took to the streets in Minsk for an annual Freedom Day march that was met with a violent police crackdown.

Statkevich had been set to co-lead the march. Instead, he said, he was detained by officers of the KGB security service and taken to a detention center, where he was questioned and told that he faced charges that he had been plotting terrorist attacks across Belarus since 2011.

He laughed as he recounted the experience, saying that the KGB must have forgotten that he was in jail from December 2010 to August 2015.

The KGB denied on March 26 that Statkevich was in its custody, and no public announcement of charges against him has been issued.

Statkevich said that most likely Belarusian authorities did not want to draw Western criticism by holding him further.

Activists say dozens of people were detained during the rally on March 25 as well as on March 26, when police clamped down to prevent people from attending a protest in central Minsk.

Hundreds more had been detained since March 1 as the government sought to end a series of protests against a controversial tax on the unemployed in the economically struggling former Soviet republic.

Some have been released, with or without a fine, while some have been sentenced to jail terms of up to 25 days.

'Imposing Fear'

Statkevich expressed the hope that all those detained would be freed, reasoning that Lukashenka cannot afford to alienate the West too much.

"The Belarusian government is keen to preserve ties with the West, otherwise Russia will smash Belarus," he said.

Russia's seizure of Crimea in 2014 and involvement in a deadly three-year-old conflict in eastern Ukraine has increased fears that Moscow might have designs on Belarus, which also lies between Russia and NATO nations.

Statkevich said the government's current internal policy can be defined as "imposing fear" without sentencing opponents to long prison terms, as Minsk is interested in "normalizing " its ties with the European Union and the United States.

Statkevich said he would continue opposing the authorities and demonstrating in the street.

"The government is cracking down on protests with one hand, but with another hand it is creating such protests through its own policies," Statkevich said.

Statkevich and another former presidential candidate and opposition leader, Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu, had said publicly that they would lead the opposition march in Minsk on March 25.

Nyaklyaeu was detained by police on March 24 in the western city of Brest as he came from Poland en route to Minsk. He was later hospitalized and was unable to attend the march, but has since been discharged.