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U.S. Concerned By Detentions In Belarus, Urges Respect For Freedoms

Belarusian Protests Against Tax On Jobless Continue
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WATCH: Belarusian Protests Against Tax On Jobless Continue

The United States and the United Nations have voiced concern about what human rights groups say is the Belarusian government's biggest crackdown on protesters in years.

Washington is monitoring "the ongoing peaceful protests in Belarus," a State Department official told RFE/RL on March 14, responding to a request for comment.

"We are concerned by the detention of multiple participants and members of the media in a recent demonstration," the official said. "We urge the government of Belarus to abide by its international commitments to respect the freedoms of speech, press, and assembly."

More protests are planned, including a major demonstration in Minsk on March 15, despite President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's March 9 announcement that collection of the tax would be suspended until 2018.

Lukashenka has said the unemployment tax is needed to fight what he called "social parasitism" -- a term reminiscent of the Soviet era.

Meanwhile, a UN human rights expert has urged Minsk to refrain from violence and harassment against protesters, and to respect freedom of peaceful assembly.

"While the international community should remain attentive, I call on the authorities of Belarus to stop acts of violence and harassment, and to respect the freedom to peacefully assemble,” Miklos Haraszti, the special rapporteur on human rights in Belarus, said in a statement issued on March 14.

Crowds of hundreds of people have turned up in cities across Belarus in recent weeks for protests against a controversial tax on the unemployed in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic.

Amnesty International said on March 13 that at least 48 people had been detained and charged with attending "unauthorized" demonstrations on March 10-12 in Belarus, which Lukashenka has ruled since 1994.

The European Union has called for the immediate release of all the detained protesters.

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's declared policy of democratization."

President Lukashenka, whom the United States has dubbed "Europe's last dictator," has been ruling Belarus for more than two decades, quashing political opposition, civil society groups, independent media, and other forms of dissent.

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