Belarus targets rights activists, journalists with raids

International

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko listens to Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, Tuesday, July 13, 2021. Putin has hosted the leader of Belarus, who has increasingly relied on Moscow’s support amid increasing tensions with the West. Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko thanked Putin for a “very serious support from Russia” and pledged that his country will duly repay its loans. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Authorities in Belarus raided the offices and homes of dozens of human rights activists and journalists Wednesday in a sweeping crackdown a day after the country’s authoritarian president promised to “deal with” non-governmental organizations that he accuses of fomenting unrest.

Law enforcement officers raided the homes of 10 workers of the Viasna human rights center, as well as its offices in Minsk and other cities. They also searched a number of other Belarusian NGOs and journalists in the ex-Soviet state.

More than 40 raids took place across the country. The chairperson of the Belarusian Association of Journalists said officers broke the doors into the organization’s office in the capital and didn’t present a search warrant.

“The most massive conveyor belt of repressions in the country’s modern history has been activated in Belarus,” Andrei Bastunets, the head of the journalists’ association, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview after the Wednesday morning raid.

The renowned Viasna center has monitored human rights in Belarus for a quarter-century. Authorities revoked its credentials in 2003 and its leader, Ales Bialiatski, was arrested in 2012 and spent two years behind bars.

Bialiatski was detained on unspecified charges Wednesday, and the raids paralyzed the work of several regional branches of Viasna. Viasna’s workers whose homes were searched were also taken to the Belarus’ Investigative Committee for questioning.

The human rights center said in a statement that it would not cease its activities under pressure. It condemned “the new wave of repression against members of our organization and civil society in Belarus.”

“The real motive for the persecution is our fight, together with Belarus’ entire human rights community, for the advancement of human rights and democratic values, against torture and cruel, inhumane, humiliating treatment (of people),” the statement said.

Other organizations targeted in the raids included the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, the World Association of Belarusians, the For Freedom movement and the Gender Perspectives association. The search of the offices of the Belarusian Association of Journalists was the second in three months.

“The authorities use the most disgusting methods of cracking down on dissent in the country — fear, arrests and raids,” Bastunest said.

According to Viasna, journalists and rights activists in the cities of Orsh, Grodno, Brest and others also were targeted in raids.

On Tuesday, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko promised to bring to justice 1,500 NGOs and journalists he alleged were “funded from abroad.” He claimed during a visit to Russia that Western-funded organizations were fomenting unrest and denounced their alleged actions.

“We have started to work very actively to deal with all those NGOs,… which were effectively promoting terror instead of democracy,” Lukashenko said.

U.S. Ambassador Julie Fisher denounced the raids on Twitter as part of a “relentless campaign to criminalize independent voices, human rights defenders and civil society.”

Belarus was rocked by months of protests after Lukashenko’s August 2020 election to a sixth term in a disputed vote that was widely seen as rigged.

Belarusian authorities responded to the protests with a massive crackdown, including police beating thousands of demonstrators and arresting more than 35,000 people. Leading opposition figures have been jailed or forced to leave the country, while independent media outlets have had their offices searched and their journalists arrested.

Last week, authorities conducted more than 30 raids targeting journalists and media organizations in the capital Minsk and other regions. Seven journalists have been detained, including those working for the Nasha Niva newspaper, which authorities have banned. A total of 39 journalists are currently behind bars, either awaiting court appearances or convicted to prison terms.

Belarus’ State Security Committee — the KGB — announced earlier this month it was conducting a large-scale operation to “purge radically minded individuals.”

A prominent lawyer, Anton Gashinsky, also was stripped of his law license Wednesday. Gashinsky represented Sophia Sapega, the Russian girlfriend of dissident journalist Raman Pratasevich. The couple were arrested after Belarusian authorities diverted a flight to Lithuania they were on to Minsk.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s main challenger in the August 2020 election, who was forced to leave Belarus and is in exile in Lithuania, tweeted Wednesday that Lukashenko “wants to desolate the whole country.”

“The regime continues its massive attack on human rights defenders, activists, journalists,” Tsikhanouskaya wrote.

Amnesty International urged the international community to act, saying that “civil society is being wiped out in the heart of Europe.”

“Today’s massive attack on vital civil society organizations shows that nowhere near enough has been done to end this crisis,” Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, said in a statement.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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