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Belarusian pro-democracy activists Maryya Kalesnikava (left) and Maksim Znak (file photo)

MINSK -- August 4 has been set for as the start date for the trial of two leading Belarusian opposition figures, Maryya Kalesnikava and Maksim Znak, on charges the United States has called "manufactured" amid an ongoing crackdown on pro-democracy activists and groups by authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Lawyers for the two, who are member of the opposition Coordination Council, said they were informed by the Minsk regional court on July 28 that the trial will be conducted behind closed doors.

Kalesnikava and Znak were charged with conspiracy to seize power, calls for action to damage national security, and calls for actions damaging national security using media and the Internet.

Both have rejected the charges, which stem from their calls for protests against official election results last August, as politically motivated.

Kalesnikava was arrested on September 7 in the center of Minsk by masked men and taken to the Ukrainian border the next day along with two associates. Ordered to cross the border, Kalesnikava refused, tearing up her passport instead. She was then taken back to Minsk and jailed.

Mass demonstrations engulfed the country after Lukashenka claimed victory and a sixth consecutive term as president in the August election.

The opposition said its candidate, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who ran for president after her husband was jailed while trying to mount a candidacy of his own, won the vote.

Tsikhanouskaya left the country for Lithuania shortly after the election due to security concerns.

On July 28, Tsikhanouskaya outlined for the first time the specific threats she faced from officials if she stayed in Belarus.

"They told me ‘Your husband is in jail and you will be also jailed for 15 years. We know where your children are, they will be transferred to an orphanage,’" Tsikhanouskaya said in an interview with BuzzFeed in explaining the reasons she left after officially filing an appeal against the official results of the presidential election.

"I have been told in horrible detail what women usually face in jail," Tsikhanouskaya added.

Thousands of Belarusians, including dozens of journalists covering the protests, have been detained and hundreds beaten in detention and on the streets.

Several protesters have been killed in the violence, and some rights organizations say there is credible evidence of torture being used by security officials against some detainees.

Lukashenka has denied any wrongdoing regarding the vote and refuses to negotiate with the opposition on stepping down and holding new elections.

The European Union, the United States, Canada, and other countries have refused to recognize Lukashenka as the legitimate leader of Belarus and have imposed sanctions on him and senior Belarusian officials in response to the "falsification" of the vote and postelection crackdown.

Azimjan Askarov died in prison in July 2020.

BISHKEK -- A court in Kyrgyzstan has ordered a resumption of the investigation into the death of human rights defender and journalist Azimjan Askarov while in police custody a year ago.

Askarov died at the age of 69 in a Kyrgyz prison on July 25, 2020, of what was initially listed as respiratory problems. Kyrgyz officials later said that the death was caused by COVID-19.

The Bishkek City Court on July 27 cancelled a lower court decision that rejected a move by Askarov's lawyer to launch a probe into the rights defender's death in custody.

The Bishkek City Court's decision to send the case back to investigators came four days after several human rights organizations demanded Kyrgyz authorities conduct "an independent investigation" into how the human rights activist died.

Askarov, who was an ethnic Uzbek, was convicted of creating a mass disturbance and being involved in the murder of a police officer during deadly ethnic clashes between local Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in Kyrgyzstan's southern cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad in 2010.

Askarov, his lawyers, and human rights groups rejected the charges, saying that the journalist was not a participant in the violence and was in the area to document the clashes that left more than 400 people, mainly Uzbek, dead and thousands displaced.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has described Askarov's death as "a stain" on the post-Soviet Central Asian country's rights record.

While the situation around human rights has improved in the country, Human Rights Watch noted in its 2021 World Report that "impunity for torture and ill-treatment remains the norm" for those held by Kyrgyz authorities.

The report called Askarov's death "one of the low points of Kyrgyzstan’s rights record" in 2020.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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