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Belarus extends crackdown to news, rights groups

July 14, 2021

Security forces swooped on offices of political prisoner network Viasna-96, news outlets and a political party, according to the affected groups.

Belarus police arrest a man in Minsk
Belarus has continued its campaign of repression against regime dissentersImage: AP/picture alliance

Belarus authorities raided at least 14 human rights group and closed down independent media groups on Wednesday as President Alexander Lukashenko continued to tighten his grip on dissenters in his beleaguered regime.

Police searched the Minsk offices of the country's main human rights group, Viasna-96, that has been keeping a close record of Lukashenkoꞌs political prisoners.

Who was targeted?

State security forces swooped on Viasna-96 headquarters and the homes of several of its members across Belarus. The group also sad it could not contact its leader Ales Byalyatski, fearing he could have become one of the country's nearly 600 political prisoners.

Viasna-96literally means "spring 96" in reference to the group's foundation in 1996, two years after Lukashenko came to office on a pro-Russian, anti-corruption ticket.

Human Rights Watch has said it "condemns" the arrest ofthe former head of Viasna-96, Andrei Aliaksandrau "who is facing up to 15 years in prison on baseless charges of ꞌtreason to the stateꞌ."

Belarus police arrest protestors at a Minsk rally
Belarus police have 555 political prisoners under arrest, says ViasnaImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo

In the western city of Grodno, Viasna said officials surprised Viktor Sazonov in his home and "took him with them" to an undisclosed location.

Viasna also said the legal support network Lawtrend and the country's oldest political party, the Belarusian People's Front, were also targeted. 

Wednesdayꞌs events followeda ban of online access to Belarusꞌ oldest newspaper, Nasha Niva, as well as reported raids on independent media group Imena and another human rights group called the Belarusian Helsinki Committee.

Nasha Niva reporters and editors in a group photo.
Access to the Nasha Niva website from Belarus IP addresses was blocked last weekImage: privat

Why is Lukashenko still in power?

Belarus' Lukashenko is considered by many to be the last authoritarian dictator in Europe.

Since coming to office for the sixth time in elections deemed neither free nor fair by the US, the EU, his domestic opponents and others, he has suppressed public dissent and protests

Protests have persisted since the vote, but Lukashenko's most recent international headline-grabbing crackdown on opposition voices was surelythe grounding of a Ryanair plane to arrest a dissident blogger.

The European Union swiftly followed the incident with sanctions on an already weakened Belarus economy.

On Tuesday,Belarus courts senteneced Viktor Babariko, one of Lukashenkoꞌs main challengers, to 14 years in prison.

Neighboring Lithuania also alleges that Lukashenko's Belarus has been helping illegal immigrants to access the EU across the two countries' shared border, in a bid to pressure the EU into reversing sanctions.

jc/msh (AFP, Reuters)