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Protesters In Babruysk Criticize Poverty, 'Serfdom' In Belarus
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Western governments and human rights groups are criticizing Belarusian authorities for the biggest crackdown in years against peaceful protesters.

The crackdown over the weekend came at demonstrations across the country against a government-backed tax on the unemployed.

Maja Kocijancic, a spokeswoman for the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said on March 13 that "the detention and sentencing of peaceful protesters, including leaders of opposition movements, is in contradiction with Belarus' declared policy of democratization."

The EU called for the immediate release of all the detained protesters.

Meanwhile, the rights group Amnesty International lamented that civil society leaders and independent journalists were among at least 48 people detained and charged with attending "unauthorized" demonstrations across the country from March 10-12.

WATCH: Belarusian Protests Against Tax On Jobless Continue In Babruysk and Vorsha

Belarusian Protests Against Tax On Jobless Continue
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John Dalhuisen, Amnesty’s director for Europe and Central Asia, said: "With basic freedoms strangled in Belarus, it has been years since we saw protests of this scale, which appear to have taken the Belarusian authorities by surprise."

Dalhuisen said: "After initially allowing protests against the deeply controversial unemployment tax to proceed, now the authorities have returned to their habitual knee-jerk reaction of arresting peaceful demonstrators."

He said the "escalation is disturbing" and that the "arbitrary detention of dissenting voices must end immediately."

Amnesty noted that authorities cracked down on rallies in the cities of Babruysk, Kobryn, Brest, Luninets, and Maladzyechna as well as the eastern city of Vorsha where dozens were detained on March 12.

WATCH: Hundreds Protest In Pinsk Against Tax On Jobless (March 11)

Hundreds Protest In Belarus City Against Tax On Jobless
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It also criticized Belarusian court rulings that sentenced at least three activists to 15 days in jail and issued fines against others, including journalists who were arrested while reporting on the demonstrations.

In Vorsha, prominent opposition figure Pavel Sevyarynets was among those detained on March 12, along with RFE/RL Belarus Service reporter Halina Abakunchyk.

On March 13, a court in Vorsha fined Abakunchyk about $300.

Abakunchyk pleaded not guilty and insisted she was merely reporting on the protest march against taxing the unemployed.

Abakunchyk said police forcibly detained her without letting her show her press card, holding her several hours at a police station even after she told them she was working as a journalist.

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has said the unemployment tax is a necessary to fight what he called "social parasitism."

Protesters want the tax law scrapped and have continued demonstrations despite a March 9 order from Lukashenka that suspended implementation of the tax until 2018.

The roughly $200 tax is aimed at those who work less than six months a year and fail to register in the country’s labor bureaus.

Belarus has seen opposition protests in the past, mainly after elections that the West has deemed neither fair nor free.

But those protests have been limited to the capital, Minsk, and larger cities.

Political observers say the fact that the antitax protests are occurring in more provincial towns and cities is indicative of larger social unrest and unhappiness with Lukashenka's government.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Belarus Service and correspondent Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels
Nariman Dzhelyal

SIMFEROPOL -- A deputy chairman of the Crimean Tatars' self-governing body, the Mejlis, has been summoned to the Russian-run Center for Combating Extremism in Ukraine's Russia-occupied Crimean Peninsula.

Nariman Dzhelyal said he was questioned for two hours on March 13 at the Simferopol-based center about a 2016 interview he gave to a Ukrainian television channel in which he was identified as a deputy chairman of the Mejlis.

Dzhelyal said he was warned that since the Mejlis is officially banned by Russian authorities, being a leader of the organization might lead to legal consequences for him.

Dzhelyal said he was also questioned about recently arrested Crimean Tatar activists who are listed as "friends" on his Facebook account.

In Kyiv, Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maryana Betsa said on March 13 that the questioning of Dzhelyal was an example of the "continuation" of Russia's "repressions" in occupied Crimea.

Russia's Supreme Court in September 2016 declared the Mejlis an "extremist" organization and banned its activities in Russia, criminalizing any association with it.

Another deputy chairman of the Mejlis, Ilmi Umerov, is facing a trial on separatism charges in Simferopol.

Two human rights lawyers who represent Umerov also were detained and questioned in January at the so-called Center for Combating Extremism, which operates under Russia's Internal Affairs Ministry.

The U.S.-based nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch says the charges against Umerov and other Crimean Tatars are "bogus" and "related to their vocal and public opposition of Russia's occupation of Crimea."

An overwhelming majority of Crimean Tatars oppose the Ukrainian peninsula’s seizure and annexation by Russia.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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