Riot Police Arrest Hundreds At Minsk Protest, Beating Many
RFE/RL's Belarus Service March 25, 2017
Riot police in Minsk have arrested hundreds of people, beating many of them, during a violent crackdown on a protest against Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's government.
Tatsyana Revyako, an activist from the Belarusian human rights group Vyasna (Spring), said more than 400 people were arrested on the streets of the Belarusian capital on March 25.
Revyako said that "many of the arrested were beaten and are in need of medical assistance."
The Belarusian Journalists' Association said 20 journalists who were covering the unauthorized demonstration were also detained by authorities.
RFE/RL correspondent Alyaksandra Dynko described the police violence as "brutal."
Dynko said elderly citizens, some disabled and as old as in their 80s, were roughed up by several police who violently shoved them into police vehicles.
She said police also used batons to beat young men and women, and even teenagers under the age of 18, if they passively resisted arrest by sitting on the ground in a gesture of nonviolent protest.
As many as five police would hold a person while another officer beat them with a baton on their torso and legs, Dynko said. She said those who questioned why they were being detained were also beaten with police batons.
Dynko saw one disabled woman in her 70s who was not participating in the demonstration, but was waiting at a bus stop near the protest, thrown so violently into a police van that she started suffering stress-induced heart problems -- requiring aid from a medical team.
"This is not the first time we have seen police violence against demonstrators in Belarus," Dynko said. "But it's very unusual to see police roughing up senior citizens like that. Clearly, the authorities are trying to intimidate everyone and discourage people from protesting in the future."
One protester, a man who gave his name as Alyaksandr, told RFE/RL he thought the police crackdown will lead to larger protests. "It's the other way around, so to say, it angers people," he said. "They are now even more angry with the action that the authorities have taken."
Even people who weren't demonstrators, but were just shopping and coming out of shops, were detained and thrown into police vans, he said.
BBC correspondent Syarhey Kozlovsky told the Associated Press that police "grabbed everybody indiscriminately, both young and old," and that he and demonstrators around him were "treated very harshly."
Amnesty International said in a statement that its monitors "witnessed the arrest of dozens of peaceful protesters" at the Minsk demonstration and saw "instances of excessive use of force by the police. They did not witness a single incident of violence on the part of demonstrators."
Denis Krivosheyev, deputy director for Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia program, said, "We have seen peaceful protesters viciously beaten on the streets of Minsk today and an elderly woman knocked to the ground by riot police."
"Rather than allow people to exercise their right to peacefully protest, the Belarusian authorities have once again resorted to authoritarian tactics: banning demonstrations, preventatively detaining human rights monitors, and arbitrarily arresting protesters," Krivosheyev said.
About 700 demonstrators had tried to march along a main avenue to the center of Minsk but were blocked by a cordon of riot police with clubs and shields.
Protesters chanted "Shame on you!" and "Fascists" during a standoff before police started arresting people.
Before the demonstration began, the Vyasna human rights group said police raided its Minsk office and detained 57 people, including foreign observers.
Vyasna has been tracking arrests and police violence at protest rallies across Belarus in recent weeks.
The U.S.-based Freedom House described the March 25 crackdown by police in Minsk as "indiscriminate."
Freedom House's Eurasia program director Marc Behrendt called on Belarus to "respect the right of all of its citizens to freely assemble," saying the authorities should "release without charges, searches, or any further harassment all of those detained."
Behrendt said Lukashenka's government "should live up to its promises to the international community to begin respecting fundamental freedoms."
The demonstrators on March 25 were trying to build on discontent that has been growing in Belarus since the government announced a law to impose a $250 tax against anyone who works less than six months a year but doesn't register with the state labor office.
Thousands of people have taken to the streets across Belarus during recent weeks in the country's largest antigovernment demonstrations in years.
Despite the postponement of implementing the unpopular tax law, the protests have broadened into general dissatisfaction against Lukashenka's 23-year rule, which critics have described as Europe's last dictatorship.
Lukashenka has claimed that foreign-supported agitators are behind the recent demonstrations and are trying to bring his government down.
About 300 opposition supporters and activists have been arrested across the country in recent days.
Vyasna said about 130 activists who have protested against the tax have been jailed for up to 15 days.
Opposition Leader Detained
Opposition leader and former presidential candidate Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu was detained late on March 24 in the western city of Brest, where he is currently being held in a detention facility.
Nyaklyeau was on his way to Minsk from Warsaw after talks with Polish government officials.
He was stopped at the border and taken off a train, his wife, Olga Nyaklyaeva, said.
Nyaklyaeu had been scheduled to appear in court on March 24 to face charges of participation in previous protests, but the trial was delayed when he failed to appear.
Nyaklyeau was planning to lead the Freedom Day rally in Minsk along with along with prominent opposition leader Mikalay Statkevich.
Statkevich, a former presidential candidate, said he still planned to attend the protest, but his whereabouts were unknown on March 25.
Statkevich's wife, Maryna Adamovich, told RFE/RL she was briefly detained at the March 25 Minsk demonstration and that she has not heard from her husband since March 23.
The United States and the European Union have sharply criticized Lukashenka's government for its response to the protests.
With reporting by AP and AFP
Copyright (c) 2017. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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