Belarus extends crackdown to human rights and news groups

Published : July 15, 2021 16:33 IST

Belarus has continued its campaign of repression against regime dissenters. Photo: AP/picture alliance

Security forces swooped on offices of political prisoner network Viasna-96 and news groups.

Belarus authorities raided at least 14 human rights groups and closed down independent media groups on July 14 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-96 literally 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 of the former head of Viasna-96, Andrei Aliaksandrau "who is facing up to 15 years in prison on baseless charges of ꞌtreason to the stateꞌ."

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.

July 14ꞌs events followed a 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.

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 U.S., the E.U., 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 surely the 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 July 13, Belarus courts sentenced 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 E.U. across the two countries' shared border, in a bid to pressure the E.U. into reversing sanctions.

jc/msh (AFP, Reuters)

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