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More than 120 peaceful protesters, opposition bloggers, journalists, and other critics of the government were arrested in 17 Belarusian cities between May 6 and 13, according to HRW.

Belarus has intensified its crackdown on independent activists and journalists with a "new wave of arbitrary arrests" ahead of presidential elections, Human Rights Watch (HRW) says.

With polls less than three months away, more than 120 peaceful protesters, opposition bloggers, journalists, and other critics of the government were arrested in 17 Belarusian cities between May 6 and 13, the New York-based human rights watchdog said on May 22.

It said that those detained were handed jail sentences of up to 25 days on charges of “participation in unsanctioned public gatherings” despite the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased risk of virus transmission in detention facilities.

The authorities "should not be arresting people for peaceful protests, but to expose them to higher risk of a deadly infection is unacceptable," said Tanya Lokshina, associate Europe and Central Asia director at HRW.

The group urged Minsk to "act on the calls by the World Health Organization and other expert international bodies…to minimize the number of people in custody during the coronavirus epidemic."

Belarus, which has reported more than 34,300 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including 190 deaths, hasn’t ordered a lockdown.

'Simply Outrageous'

HRW said those arbitrarily arrested this month included environmental protestors who opposed the construction of a battery factory in the western city of Brest, supporters of a popular blogger who has announced he would run for president, and human rights defenders and journalists who reported on peaceful public gatherings.

One of the detained activists was diagnosed with COVID-19 shortly after his arrest, while another fell ill with coronavirus symptoms during his detention, according to HRW.

"Arresting people for participating in or reporting on peaceful gatherings is an unjust penalty even in normal times, and pursuing this practice during a pandemic is simply outrageous," Lokshina said.

Critics of authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has been in power in Belarus for more than 25 years, say his government has shown little tolerance for dissent and independent media.

The country has been the target of U.S. and EU sanctions over its poor rights record and lack of fair elections, but Belarus and the West have recently sought to mend ties to reduce Russia’s influence in the country.

Ivan Bakanov, whom the president has described as the "most honest SBU chief," did not comment personally. (file photo)

KYIV -- The head of the Ukrainian Security Service holds a top position in a private company registered in Spain, in violation of an anti-corruption law, according to a Skhemy investigative program.

According to the May 21 report, an official extract from the register of legal entities in Spain shows Ivan Bakanov has occupied the post of sole administrator at Nueva Tierra Verde Sociedad Limitada since 2015.

According to Ukrainian law, the head of the service, known as the SBU, cannot be the head of a private company.

The founder of the company is the Cypriot firm Davegra LTD, owned by Andriy Yakovlev, the creator of Kvartal-95 Studio, where President Volodymyr Zelenskiy worked as a comedian/actor before he was elected last year.

The name of the company, based in the Spanish province of Girona, translates as New Green Territory in English, echoing the titles of projects with Zelenskiy's involvement. The president's last name stems from the word green in Slavic languages.

According to the register, the company specializes in construction and various real-estate activities.

Since it does not submit annual reports on its operations, the company was added to a list of violators of Spanish tax regulations.

Last autumn, the company's tax identification number was temporarily revoked due to the violation.

The State Register of Legal Entities of the Province of Girona confirmed to Skhemy that the company had not been liquidated and was considered a functioning entity.

Under Spanish regulations, Bakanov is legally the company's sole manager and fully in charge of running it.

Article 25 of Ukraine's Law on the Prevention of Corruption states that individuals occupying public offices are banned "from being members of boards, other executive or control bodies, and supervisory boards of commercial enterprises or profit organizations."

Bakanov refused to comment on the situation, but the SBU press service provided Skhemy with a statement denying Bakanov did anything wrong.

Skhemy, which translates as Schemes, is a joint investigative news project produced by RFE/RL and UA:Pershy television.

"It is a well-known fact that, long before his appointment as the chief of the Security Service of Ukraine, Ivan Bakanov was successfully engaged in business, including business activities abroad. We stress that, in compliance with the law requirements, he has not been engaged in commercial activities since his appointment to the public office. Nueva Tierra Verde Sociedad Limitada officially suspended its activities in 2019, which is reflected in the relevant register of legal entities," the SBU's statement said.

When asked about the Spanish State Register's statement confirming the company was still listed as functioning with Bakanov as its sole administrator, the press service said that "work to clarify the issue will be done."

The deadline for submitting property and income declarations by Ukrainian officials to the National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption is June 1.

According to amendments to the legislation introduced last fall, the SBU leadership must make all income declarations public.

However, Zelenskiy submitted an "urgent" bill to parliament in March that would again classify the SBU leadership's income and property declarations.

Zelenskiy promised to discuss the issue with Bakanov, whom he calls "the most honest SBU chief," when asked about the move during a press conference on May 20.

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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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