Authorities in Belarus have detained protesters as they attempted to hold a banned rally in the capital Minsk, amid rising public anger over falling living standards and an unpopular tax on the unemployed.
News agencies reported that scores of people, including 10 journalists, were taken away by riot police on Saturday, a day after authorities told organisers the event would be illegal.
Amnesty International said on its Russian-language Twitter account that dozens of people were grabbed off the street “indiscriminately”. Some were beaten, according to reports.
The wide-scale detentions were also reported by Viasna, a human rights group, which also said that police had earlier raided its offices and briefly detained about 60 activists.
Opposition leader Vladimir Nekliayev, who was set to speak at the protest, was also stopped at the border on Saturday morning on his way to Minsk, his wife told the AFP news agency.
The planned demonstration was the latest in a wave of protests since February that pose the biggest challenge in years to President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet state for a quarter of a century.
Earlier this week, Lukashenko accused a “fifth column” of plotting to overthrow him with the help of foreign-backed fighters. On Friday, he built on this theme, saying “someone wants to blow up the situation, and they use our scumbags”.
Belarus has been in recession for the past two years, suffering the knock-on effects of an economic downturn in Russia and a sharp fall in oil prices. The hardship has brought thousands to the streets, including former Lukashenko supporters.
“I voted for him, but now I tell Lukashenko – leave,” protester Lubov Sankevich told the Reuters news agency on Saturday.
“I’m afraid but how long we can be afraid? Why should I be afraid of prison if I’m already in prison?” Sankevich said.
A tax on those unemployed for six months, known as a law against “social parasites”, was among the issues that first triggered the protests.
Lukashenko suspended the tax in light of the backlash, but the protests have continued.
Those against the tax say it is unfairly punishes people who are unable to find work.
|The protests were triggered by a tax on the unemployed, which the government has since suspended [Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters]|
Saturday’s crackdown was the culmination of the Belarussian authorities hardening their position on the protests.
On Friday, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) joined 48 rights organisations in calling for Lukashenko to end the “detention and harassment of protesters, journalists, human rights defenders, civil society activists and members of the country’s opposition party”.
According to CPJ, at least 32 journalists have been detained or obstructed since the beginning of the month.
It is unclear as yet how the crackdown will affect relations with Belarus’ neighbours.
Lukashenko has sought to improve ties with the West against the backdrop of cooling relations with Russia.
He has pardoned several political prisoners, spurring the European Union to lift sanctions against a country once described by the US as ” Europe’s last dictatorship“.
Source: News agencies