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Police have harassed and detained at least 17 journalists as part of an intensifying crackdown in the country.

Belarusian authorities have detained at least 17 members of the press covering protests that erupted across the country this week, in a move decried by activists and watchdogs as part of a campaign of repression ahead of a presidential election next month.

The wave of protests has rocked Belarus in the days since the Central Election Commission (CEC) on July 14 denied several opposition presidential candidates the ability to register in the upcoming vote.

Hundreds of people were detained and physically attacked, including five journalists from RFE/RL, in the cities of Minsk, Brest, and Homel on July 14-15.

In a statement on July 16, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) urged the authorities to stop "harassing, detaining, and charging" media workers.

"Belarusian authorities must stop detaining and prosecuting journalists if they want the country's upcoming elections to be seen to have even a shred of legitimacy," Gulnoza Said, the media-freedom watchdog's Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, said in a statement on July 16.

Events in Belarus have drawn criticism from the United States and the European Union, which in recent years have eased sanctions slapped on the country over its human rights record as part of a nascent rapprochement with President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Lukashenka, who is seeking a sixth term in the August 9 poll, has rejected Western criticism of the government's violent dispersal of the demonstrations and the disqualification of candidates.

On July 15, RFE/RL journalist Anton Trafimovich was detained and beaten by riot police who left him handcuffed and kneeling on the floor of a police van, bleeding with a broken nose, as he was taken to a precinct station. He was later released without explanation.

The previous day, RFE/RL journalists Ales Piletsky and Andrey Rabchyk were detained during a live broadcast about the CEC’s decision and held by police for several hours.

"That our colleagues were attacked in the middle of live broadcasts leaves no doubt that the government is trying to stop our coverage and prevent audiences from having access to reliable news," RFE/RL acting President and Editor in Chief Daisy Sindelar said.

The upcoming election comes as Lukashenka faces mounting public opposition to his rule. The country has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic with more than 65,000 confirmed cases as of July 16, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Lukashenka ignored calls to institute any lockdown measures, dismissing the virus as nothing more than a "psychosis." Hundreds of people, including activists and bloggers have been arrested as the government has cracked down hard on rallies and demonstrations despite calls for restraint from Western governments and institutions, including the United Nations.

Last month, Belarusian authorities detained at least 14 journalists for allegedly participating in unsanctioned protests, and in May, five journalists covering opposition candidates were detained, according to CPJ.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called on the authorities to "stop this escalation of the repression of the fundamental freedom to express oneself and to inform."

RFE/RL's Belarus Service is known locally as Radio Svaboda (Radio Liberty).

Protesters gathered in Shiraz on July 16.

Iranian protesters have gathered in the streets of Shiraz and Behbahan, chanting slogans against the country’s establishment.

Social-media users on July 16 called for nationwide demonstrations at 7:00 p.m. local time against a court decision to uphold death sentences against three men who participated in protests last year.

Videos shared on social media purportedly showed protesters in Behbahan, in the southwestern province of Khuzestan, and in Shiraz, the capital of southwestern Fars Province, shouting slogans against the death sentences handed to Amir Hossein Moradi, Saeed Tamjidi, and Mohammad Rajabi.

The Reuters news agency quoted witnesses as saying security forces fired tear gas to disperse the demonstrators in Behbahan.

Meanwhile, an increased presence of security forces was reported in the streets of the capital, Tehran, and several other cities.

On July 14, Iran's judiciary said the Supreme Court had upheld the death sentences against Moradi, 25, Tamjidi, 27, and Rajabi, 25, for criminal actions during protests in November sparked by a hike in gasoline prices.

The decision sparked a surge of online protests against the sentences, with the hashtag #Don’t_Execute in Persian trending globally on Twitter, being used more than 7 million times.

In a joint statement on July 16, United Nations human rights experts strongly condemned the Supreme Court’s decision, and urged the head of Iran’s judiciary to “immediately quash this decision and to grant a prompt and independent judicial review.”

They also called for an “independent and impartial investigation into the allegations of torture” made by Moradi, Tamjidi, and Rajabi, followed by the prosecution of the perpetrators if their claims are founded.

Iran could overturn the death sentences against the three, since a provision in Iran’s Code of Criminal Procedure authorizes the head of the judiciary to intervene in finalized rulings deemed to be in violation of Islamic law.

Under that provision, judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi could instruct the Supreme Court to issue a new verdict.

The death sentences were originally imposed in February.

Moradi, Tamjidi, and Rajabi have denied the charges and said they were tortured to make confessions, which were later used against them during trials.

“From the outset, their arrest and detention and subsequent trial is replete with allegations of denial of their due-process rights,” the UN independent experts said.

Their statement reads that international law “limits the imposition of the death penalty to the most serious crimes and precludes its imposition if a fair trial has not been granted and if other rights have been violated.”

It adds that the imposition of the death penalty “on the basis of overbroad national security charges would amount to an egregious violation of Iran’s human rights obligations.”

Iran was rocked by five days of unrest following a hike in gasoline prices in November 2019. The protests were violently suppressed by security forces.

Iranian authorities have still not released reliable information on the numbers of fatalities during the unrest.

A senior Iranian lawmaker said in June that 230 were killed and thousands injured during the protests, while Amnesty International said more than 300 people died in the crackdown.

The case of Moradi, Tamjidi, and Rajabi “is not an isolated incident,” the UN experts said, adding: “There are widespread reports of arbitrary detention of protestors and torture to obtain false confessions. Other individuals have also reportedly been imprisoned and possibly sentenced to death for their participation in the protests.”

The experts urged Iran to conduct an “independent, impartial, and transparent” investigation into the events, prosecute officials involved in human rights violations, and free all those detained for protesting peacefully.

The experts included Javaid Rehman, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran; Agnes Callamard, special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions; Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, special rapporteur on rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; David Kaye, special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; and Nils Melzer, special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, among others.

With reporting by Reuters

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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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