AMNA NAWAZ: Today, the U.S. and its allies initiated an international investigation into human rights abuses in Belarus.
For years, Belarus' government has been imprisoning anyone seen as a threat.
It's also become increasingly reliant on Russia and supports Russia's war in Ukraine.
Nick Schifrin speaks to the head of Belarus' opposition, as the government cracks down on its critics.
NICK SCHIFRIN: This is the rough reality for Belarusian journalists and government critics.
Last week, a former photojournalist walked out of his apartment.
Government agents who had been tracking him followed him and wrestled him to the ground, his supposed crime, investigative journalism.
In another incident earlier this month, police detained a disabled man, who had to be hospitalized.
Human rights groups say the government now holds more than 1,000 political prisoners.
Nobel laureate Ales Bialiatski got 10 years for -- quote -- "actions grossly violating the public order."
SVITLANA TSIKHANOUSKAYA, Belarusian Opposition Leader: Repressions in our country are intensified.
On average, about 17 people are being detained every day, lawyers, journalists, activists.
People are given years and years in prisons for challenging the regime and they are opposing the war in Ukraine.
NICK SCHIFRIN: No one symbolizes Belarus' hope for democracy better than Svitlana Tsikhanouskaya.
She's a former English teacher and full-time mom who ran for president after her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, was arrested as he began his campaign for president in 2020.
Tsikhanouskaya was allowed to run herself, and the opposition says she defeated strongman Alexander Lukashenko.
He has led the country for 30 years and claimed he won 80 percent of the 2020 election that the international community called stolen.
After, the country erupted in unprecedented protests.
But Lukashenko and his Russian allies responded with force, widespread torture and arrests.
Today, leading opposition figures remain detained, and others, including Tsikhanouskaya, live in exile.
This month, she was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison.
SVITLANA TSIKHANOUSKAYA: We ask to initiate the international proceedings against Lukashenko as a criminal.
We ask to recognize his regime as terrorist for his crimes against humanity and crimes of aggression against Ukraine.
Those people who committed crimes against Belarusians, prosecutors, judges, members of Parliament of Lukashenko, propagandists, should be set on sanctions for them to understand that there will be no impunity for them.
And, of course, no lifting sanctions should take place, even to exchange them for political prisoners, because our people don't want to be bargaining chips.
NICK SCHIFRIN: Some 10 percent-plus of the country came out and protested in 2020.
If that did not achieve a new government in Belarus, what can?
SVITLANA TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Urgent measures have to be taken now to inspire people.
When people in Belarus see that they are not abandoned, that they are not overlooked and forgotten, it gives them energy to continue the fight.
So, more decisive actions, more decisive declarations will help our people to continue the resistance and win finally.
NICK SCHIFRIN: And does winning mean a color revolution?
Does it mean regime change?
SVITLANA TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Of course.
Our main task is new free and fair elections in our country and give people the opportunity to vote freely and securely.
NICK SCHIFRIN: Last year, Russian troops used Belarus to invade Northern Ukraine.
Pro-Ukrainians in Belarus known as partisans have resisted the governments support for the war, and even used a drone to attack this Russian surveillance plane outside of the capital, Minsk.
SVITLANA TSIKHANOUSKAYA: In the beginning of the war, they disrupted railways to slow down delivering of Russian equipment to Russian army to attack Ukraine.
And this blowup of plane is also part of peaceful resistance, because our partisans are damaging aircraft that could potentially kill a lot of Ukrainians.
NICK SCHIFRIN: But Lukashenko is increasingly dependent on Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite some awkward exchanges.
VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russian President (through translator): Dear Alexander Grigoryevich, thank you for agreeing to come.
ALEXANDER LUKASHENKO, President of Belarus (through translator): As if I could not have come.
VLADIMIR PUTIN (through translator): Well, we are all busy people.
SVITLANA TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Look, Lukashenko is a full accomplice to Putin.
And Lukashenko fulfills all the orders of Putin.
And there is no task to split Putin and Lukashenko.
The independence of our country is at the stake.
And this is Lukashenko who is selling this independency to Putin.
So, I ask our partners not to make any deals with Lukashenko, not to try, like, save him.
We are asking to save Belarus from Lukashenko.
NICK SCHIFRIN: There are many Belarusians in exile.
There are also many Russians in exile.
Is there a way for Belarusian and Russians in exile to work together to create a more democratic region?
SVITLANA TSIKHANOUSKAYA: We can communicate with the Russian opposition.
We can share maybe some initiatives.
But, at the moment, we have different paths.
As I said, we have different contexts and maybe different methods of fighting this.
NICK SCHIFRIN: Tsikhanouskaya herself vows to keep fighting, but also maintains an earlier promise, to step aside if the country ever becomes a democracy.
SVITLANA TSIKHANOUSKAYA: People in Belarus are united, not around one person, not about - - not around me, but about our aim.
And my task to be with Belarusian people as they -- as long as people need me.
Now our people are united as never before, and the regime is trying a lot to split our unity, but they will fail.
NICK SCHIFRIN: Svitlana Tsikhanouskaya, thank you very much.
SVITLANA TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Thank you.