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Caught In Protest Dragnet, Belarusians Accuse Police Of Brutality, Lies

  • Alan Crosby

When Paval Belavus and his pregnant wife went out for groceries in central Minsk on March 26, he expected it would be a quick trip. Minutes later, they were herded into a police van. He was taken away and charged with participating in an unlawful protest.

In the past six weeks, demonstrators across the country have seized on the discontent that has been growing in Belarus since the government began enforcing a steep tax against people without full-time employment.

The 2015 law, known popularly as the law against "social parasites," took effect earlier this year, sparking protests that have broadened into general dissatisfaction with President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's 23-year rule.

The arrests and hurried court trials of hundreds, from young activists to passersby to seniors, hint at a severe -- and seemingly indiscriminate -- new chapter in Lukashenka's crackdown to quell public discontent in the tightly controlled post-Soviet society.

"The riot police lied" in court about what we were doing there, Belavus's wife, Katsyaryna, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service after her husband was sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention. She said she was released by riot police after being held for about 10 minutes.

Quashing Opposition

Some 300 people were rounded up by police in the weeks leading up to the rally in the central October Square, near to where Belavus's trip turned from shopping into a crime.

During his two decades in power, Lukashenka has systemically quashed opposition parties, independent media, and civil-society groups. Past outbursts of political protests have been met with violence, a pattern many protesters claim is being repeated and authorities have denied.

Alyaksey Loyko, a lawyer with the Viasna human rights center, was hospitalized with a concussion and bruises after police raided the group's Minsk offices when he hosted a session to train people on how to monitor demonstrations for rights violations.

"Two or three agents dragged me to the ground and began to beat me," he told RFE/RL's Current Time, noting a dozen or so police then detained those present at the training session, including international observers, foreign media representatives, and human rights organizers.

Interior Ministry officials did not respond to repeated attempts by Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, for comment on the incident.

'Lies In Court'

Ales Lahvinets and his 22-year-old son Anton say they were forcibly detained by police after they walked out of their Minsk apartment on March 23. While Anton, a student at Warsaw University, was released, Ales said he was beaten by police and arrested for "resisting police and public use of obscenities."

But instead of being taken to court, the elder Lahvinets ended up in hospital with a broken nose, a concussion, and head wounds. Officer Alyaksandr Kovalchuk would later testify in court that the injuries were self-inflicted as Lahvinets had repeatedly hit his head against a seat in the police car.

"What do you expect?" Anton said while recounting the court hearing. "It's not the first time that a witness, a riot policeman, has lied in a Belarusian court.... Nothing they said happened actually happened."

Activist Mykalay Dziadok, who has been arrested several times before for his protest activities, was at the Freedom Day rally before he was arrested and mysteriously disappeared. His father, Alyaksandr, said that at first, he couldn't track down his son.

He was told his son had been taken to several different police stations, but before he could confirm anything he received a phone call from a Minsk hospital.

"I was told that he was taken from a detention center but they wouldn't tell me where. Then I got the phone call from the hospital and was told he was in surgery because of a head injury and that he was still being accompanied by police," the elder Dziadok said. No reason for his son's injuries was given.

Releasing Pressure?

Lukashenka uses a considerable security and intelligence structure to monitor and punish even minor signs of dissent, exercises tight control over the media, and bans many forms of protest.

But some political observers have speculated that Lukashenka was allowing these demonstrations to take place as a way to release pressure on the country's beleaguered economy.

Belarus is heavily dependent on cheap oil imports from Russia, which it refines and then exports to Europe and elsewhere.

The country is also reliant on trade with Russia and remittances from Belarusians working there, something that has suffered due to Russia's own economic struggles.

Many seniors attending the rally were protesting deteriorating economic conditions that are eating away at their pensions.

Rising Unemployment, Shrinking Economy

Until now, many had stayed quiet on the premise that as long as there was stability, Lukashenka's rule was acceptable enough.

But a recession that saw Belarus's economy shrink and employment decline last year has led to questions over whether Lukashenka can continue to uphold his end of the deal.

Yana Rusakievich, a member of the Belarus Free Theater, said she was taking photos at the rally before police stopped her and beat her, leaving the actress in hospital with a concussion.

British freelance journalist Filip Warwick -- who has contributed to RFE/RL in the past -- said he was heading back to his hostel near Victory Square in Minsk on March 25 when a squad from the OMON riot police swooped in and, at times violently, herded people, who were not protesting at the time, into vans.

"They threw me feet first into the OMON truck for detainees. Basically, I was thrown, like, you know when you throw a ball for a dog to catch? I was thrown like a ball," he said, adding that, at another point, police knocked him to the ground for asking what was happening.

The European Union has condemned the Belarusian authorities' actions against protesters and demanded the immediate release of "all recently detained peaceful citizens."

With reporting by RFE/RL's Belarus Service
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