Belarus police arrest protesters at banned demonstration

March 25, 2017 2:47 pm

Police officers
cross a road during an opposition rally against President Alexander
Lukashenko’s rule and a controversial new tax on “spongers” – those who
work less than six months a year – in Minsk, , March 25, 2017.
(Photo by AFP)

Police in the capital of
Belarus have begun wide-scale arrests of protesters who had gathered for
a forbidden demonstration that they hoped would build on a rising wave
of defiance of the former Soviet republic’s authoritarian government.

About
700 people had tried to march along Minsk’s main avenue, but were
blocked by a cordon of riot police wielding clubs and holding shields.
After a standoff, arrests began.
“They’re beating the
participants, dragging women by the hair to buses. I was able to run to a
nearby courtyard,” demonstrator Alexander Ponomarev said.
There were no immediate figures on how many people were taken into custody.
Earlier,
police raided the offices of a prominent rights group, detaining dozens
of people on the day of a planned protest, including foreign rights
workers.
Police also detained dozens in the streets and seized
leading opposition leader Vladimir Nekliayev as he was returning from
Poland, taking him off the train at the border and placing him in a
detention facility.
Viasna, a non-governmental organization (NGO)
that had been tracking arrests and protest rallies in Belarus in recent
weeks, said riot police had broken down the door, “put people face down
on the floor and told them to stay there”.
“There were 57 people detained, including foreign observers,” it said on its website.
Those
detained were taken to a police station, where they were told they are
“suspected of banditism,” searched and let out of the station in small
groups after most of the protest had been broken up, the group’s lawyer
Anastasiya Loiko said.
Belarus has seen an unusually persistent
wave of protests over the past two months against President Alexander
Lukashenko, who has ruled since 1994. After tolerating the initial
protests, authorities cracked down. Lukashenko this week alleged that a
“fifth column” of foreign-supported agitators was trying to bring him
down.
In his 23 years as president, Lukashenko has stifled dissent
and free media and retained much of the Soviet-style command economy.

People
gather to protest against President Alexander Lukashenko’s rule and a
controversial new tax on “spongers” – those who work less than six
months a year – in central Minsk, Belarus, March 25, 2017. (Photo by
AFP)The protests this year initially focused on
his unpopular “anti-parasite” law that calls for a $250 tax on anyone
who works less than six months a year, but doesn’t register with the
state labor exchange. But the protests broadened into general
dissatisfaction with his rule, which some critics have characterized as
’s last dictatorship.
Authorities late Friday told
organizers that the event would be illegal. On Saturday, scores of
armored police trucks and water cannons, as well as officers armed with
automatic rifles could be seen in the city.
‘Heavy police presence’
The square where the protest had been set to start was blocked by heavy police presence, with the metro exits sealed.
Police
detained people at the scene, putting them in vans, but several hundred
managed to walk with Belarusian red-and-white flags shouting “Shame!”
before being broken up as riot police lined up to block main streets
brandishing their shields.
Several journalists were also detained
in Minsk and in Gomel, a city in southeastern Belarus, according to the
Belarus Association of Journalists NGO. The team from Belsat, an
opposition channel based in Poland, had their camera smashed, it said.
The
Amnesty International rights group said on its Russian-language Twitter
account that dozens of people were grabbed off the street
“indiscriminately”.
Dozens had already been arrested ahead of
Saturday’s event, as state television aired reports of alleged weapons
caches discovered while police armed with automatic rifles were in the
city center for the first time in decades.
Many had planned to
travel to the capital from the provinces for the protest. Belarusian
railway monopoly halted online sales for several hours overnight Friday
to Saturday, ostensibly due to “technical works.”

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