Rights advocates in Belarus sounded the alarm on Tuesday about a new heavy crackdown on dissent by the authoritarian government that saw over 100 people — including several psychologists and psychiatrists — detained in a week.
Viasna, Belarus' oldest and most prominent rights group, said mass arrests took place in the capital Minsk, as well as in the east and the west of the country. The authorities targeted opposition activists, journalists, medical workers, members of shooting sports clubs and people working with drones.
Viasna's Pavel Sapelka told The Associated Press that Belarus' security forces are waging “sweeping raids and searches” on those suspected of involvement in a recent attack on a Russian warplane stationed near the Belarusian capital.
“Guerillas” from the country's opposition BYPOL movement claimed responsibility of the attack on a Beriev A-50 parked at the Machulishchy Air Base near Minsk. Russia used the territory of its ally Belarus to invade Ukraine a year ago, and Belarus has continued to host Russian troops, warplanes and other weapons. The opposition activists had said they aimed to undermine that support for the war.
The Belarusian authorities have said they requested from longtime ally Moscow to monitor their border and initially kept quiet about the incident. Days later, Belarus' authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko acknowledged the attack, saying that the damage to the plane was insignificant, but admitting it had to be sent to Russia for repairs.
According to Belarus' Interior Ministry, on March 9 alone 60 people were detained as part of “intensifying work on those involved in extremist groups and terrorist organizations.” The country's KGB state security agency also reported detaining a Ukrainian national whom the authorities accuse of attacking the plane, and 20 Belarusian alleged accomplices.
The authorities also reported detaining 30 people in the city of Gomel on the border with Ukraine, “with the purpose of identifying connections with foreign members of extremist groups.” According to Viasna, those detained in Gomel remain in custody in harsh conditions.
The group also reported “inexplicable” mass detentions of Belarusian psychologists and psychiatrists. More than 20 doctors have been detained across the country, and the authorities “demand that they violate doctor-patient confidentiality and report ‘unsavory’ patients they're treating.”
A total of four journalists have also been detained in Belarus over the past week. Among them are Viachaslau Lazarau, who was arrested in Vitebsk and is facing charges of "contributing to extremist activities," and cameraman Pavel Padabed, who was detained in Minsk on Tuesday for a social media post from 2012. Another journalist, Anatol Hatouchyts in Gomel, was subjected to a home search.
Sapelka from Viasna said that “we know of a hundred detained all across Belarus, but the real scale (of the crackdown) can be much larger.”
“Every act of resisting Lukashenko's regime triggers a new wave of harsh repression in Belarus,” Sapelka said, adding that the clampdown is aimed at “sowing more fear in an already intimidated society.”
A sweeping crackdown on dissent in Belarus was unleashed by the authorities in 2020 and has continued in waves ever since. It came in response to mass protests that followed an Aug. 2020 election that gave Lukashenko a new term in office. Opposition politicians and Western countries denounced the results as a sham.
Lukashenko, a longtime ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin who backed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has ruled the ex-Soviet country with an iron fist since 1994. More than 35,000 people were arrested, and thousands were beaten by police amid the protests, the largest ever held in the country.
“Detentions, raids, torture behind bars continue in Belarus, political prisoners face pressure, and independent media content is being labeled extremist,” Sapelka said. “Repression against those who actively express their views on the war in Ukraine, unleashed by Russia, are intensifying every day.”