Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya urged world leaders Tuesday not to neglect her isolated homeland, saying it should not become Russian President Vladimir Putin's "consolation prize" as part of his war against Ukraine.
"I ask our partners and allies to keep Belarus on the agenda," Tikhanovkskaya told AFP in an interview on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.
"It's crucial that Belarus is... discussed, that in our region Belarus is not left to Putin as a consolation prize."
Tikhanovskaya, who claimed victory against longtime Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko in the 2020 presidential election, has lived in exile since authorities unleashed a violent crackdown on protesters disputing the results of the vote.
Lukashenko has been instrumental to Russia's war effort in Ukraine, allowing Moscow to stage attacks from Belarusian territory, and more recently hosting Russian nuclear weapons and harboring members of the notorious Wagner mercenary group.
"It's also a threat to regional security, a threat to our neighbors through deployment of nuclear weapons, through deployment of Russian military forces in our country," Tikhanovskaya said.
"Without a democratic and free Belarus there will be no peace and security in the whole region. We are important."
She called for the International Court of Justice, the UN's top legal body, to launch an investigation into human rights abuses by Lukashenko and his allies.
Tikhanovskaya said that international humanitarian organizations should play a more active role in Belarus, which, she said, is seeing an epidemic of politically motivated detentions.
"In Belarus, there are many political prisoners who are in a very poor physical state -- with cancer, with heart attacks, with diabetes," who are denied treatment.
"The Red Cross... they have to demand every day to get access to all prisoners. So we need more effective work," Tikhanovskaya said.
- Passport 'revenge' -
A number of top opposition leaders remain in jail, including Tikhanovskaya's husband Sergei. Tikhanovskaya said he is being held incommunicado and she has not heard from him for six months.
Tikhanovskaya says she is trying to be strong, but seeing her children in pain hurts even more.
"I realize the situation, of course. I will cry in my pillow, but nobody will see this," she said. "But every day I see how my children, you know, are suffering -- they write letters to daddy, and they don't receive any answer."
She added: "I know that I have to work hard every day... because without this work, without this persistence, our beloved, our friends, our relatives... will not be released from prison."
Earlier this month, authorities in Belarus announced that its embassies abroad would stop issuing passports for citizens, a move that bodes ill for thousands of Belarusians living in exile and that was blasted by the UN.
"This decision is about revenge, revenge (against) all those people who fled because of oppression," she said.
Tikhabnovskaya said her team is working on issuing special identification papers for her compatriots living abroad, which she hopes will be recognized by European governments as valid travel documents.
"I hope of course that one day it will be the passports for all Belarusians," she said.