Rights group reports more arrests as Belarus intensifies crackdown on dissent

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TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — A rights group on Thursday reported dozens more home raids and arrests across Belarus in the latest intensification of a years-long crackdown on dissent in the country of 9.5 million people.

The Viasna human rights center said it knew of at least 159 people targeted by searches and detentions in multiple Belarusian cities, including the capital, Minsk. Those targeted by authorities included relatives of jailed dissidents, journalists and others, it said.

Leaders of Belarusian opposition have called the new wave of arrests, which is the biggest in recent months, “a blow to the solidarity within the country."

According to Viasna, there are 1,419 political prisoners now held in Belarus. Many of those detained Thursday and earlier in the week had been helping families of those jailed for political reasons.

Authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko unleashed an unrelenting crackdown on dissent in August 2020, after an election the opposition and the West denounced as a sham gave him his sixth term in office.

The outcome of the vote triggered unprecedented mass protests that rocked the country for months. Belarusian authorities detained more than 35,000 demonstrators, with police and security forces brutally beating many. Thousands have fled the country, and dozens have been labeled extremists by authorities.

Many of those detained Thursday were reportedly involved with the INeedHelpBY project, which helps “provide food to political prisoners and others who find themselves in dire straits amid repressions.” Officials have outlawed the project as extremist, which exposes anyone involved to prosecution and imprisonment of up to seven years.

INeedHelpBY activst Filip Hauryshau has urged people involved to leave the project's online chat and unfollow it on social media, saying authorities are seeking a list of those involved. INeedHelpBY reported the project has provided assistance worth of more than $1.5 million since 2020.

Arrests have been carried out by Belarus’ main security service, the KGB, and its officers demand those targeted and those who witness raids to sign a non-disclosure agreement, one such witness told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals.

Viasna said security operatives also forcibly install spyware on the phones of those detained and their relatives, which allows the KGB to monitor closed chats of activists.

“The attack on the people and the initiatives, which in harsh conditions make sure Belarusians aren't left without help, aims for revenge for the solidarity, to destroy the support infrastructure, intimidate people involved in it,” Viasna rights advocate Pavel Sapelka told AP.

The Belarusian Association of Journalists said that among those arrested was Aksana Yuchkovich, a journalist with the news outlet Catholic.By who was involved in helping families of political prisoners.

It said that in the western city of Drahichyn, authorities arrested Siarhei Gardzievich, a journalist who previously served 1 1/2 years in prison before being released in October 2022. In the eastern city of Vitebsk, journalist and rights advocate Barys Khamaida was arrested.

According to the association, authorities also launched a criminal investigation of 20 Belarusian analysts and pundits who live abroad, accusing them of conspiring to overthrow the government and “propaganda of extremism.”

In a statement, Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said she was "shocked by the raids of the Belarusian regime on families of political prisoners.”

Josep Borrell, the European Union's top diplomat, condemned the new wave of arrests, noting it is unfolding ahead of parliamentary elections in February.

Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, said in a statement that the latest arrests represent “a new departure in the chilling campaign to exterminate all vestiges of dissent in Belarus since the disputed 2020 election.”