Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya has called on three jailed Belarusians to stop hunger strikes they started to protest their incarceration as part of a crackdown on those speaking out against authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
In a video statement issued on YouTube on March 14, Tsikhanouskaya tells journalist Ihar Losik, musician Ihar Bantser, and activist Dzmitry Furmanau that Belarus cannot risk losing them.
"You are now risking your lives by expressing your protest through a hunger strike. But, we, Belarusians, are not ready to risk you....Your loved ones, parents and children need you. Belarus needs you," Tsikhanouskaya said in the statement.
Tsikhanouskaya also said that she was "doing her best" to secure the release of "hundreds of other [innocent[ Belarusians who are locked up."
Tsikhanouskaya added that she had met officials across Europe last week and asked them to impose additional sanctions on Belarusian officials over the jailing of activists across Belarus who have been protesting the official results of an August 9 presidential election they say was rigged to hand Lukashenka a landslide victory.
"As early as next week, the UN should launch a mechanism to bring to justice those who carried out illegal detentions and passed verdicts imposed from above," Tsikhianouskaya said. "But I don't know if you still have a week."
Losik, a consultant for RFE/RL on new-media technologies, tried to slit his wrists in front of an investigator and a lawyer and restarted a hunger strike on March 11 after new unspecified charges were filed against him.
This came less than two months after he ended a six-week hunger strike to protest the original charges that he allegedly used his video blog to help organize riots to protest the election results.
News of the new charges against the 28-year-old father of a 2-year-old daughter prompted RFE/RL President Jamie Fly to urge Lukashenka to release Losik immediately so he can be reunited with his family.
“Journalism is not a crime and Ihar has been unjustly detained for far too long. Ihar and his family should not be tortured in this way,” Fly wrote, adding that RFE/RL was "deeply distressed" by the new charges and Losik's deteriorating health situation.
Bantser, a musician from the western city of Hrodna, was detained on October 20 over his participation in an anti-Lukashenka rally and charged with hooliganism. Bantser started his hunger strike on March 3, protesting his arrest and the charge filed against him.
Furmanau was arrested in Hrodna in late May when taking part in an event on collecting signatures to endorse Tsikhanouskaya as a presidential candidate. He was charged with organizing activities that disrupt social order. Furmanau started his hunger strike on March 11.
Tsikhanouskaya is currently in Lithuania, where she relocated for security reasons after the presidential election that she and her supporters say she won.
She ran in the vote after the candidacy of her husband, vlogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski, was rejected by election officials and he was arrested in May last year.
Last week, Tsikhanouski was served with final charges -- impeding election officials' work, organizing mass disorders, and activities to disrupt social order -- that could see him imprisoned for up to 15 years.
The EU, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada have refused to recognize Lukashenka as the legitimate president of Belarus.
Lukashenka has overseen a violent crackdown on the protesters which has seen thousands -- including members of the media -- detained and scores injured.
Overall, more than 1,800 criminal cases have been launched over the protests against the official results of the presidential election.