MINSK -- Belarusian police have carried out sweeping raids on human rights groups and the media, including the Vyasna human rights center and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, as authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka further ramps up his crackdown on dissent.
At least a dozen people were detained in the July 14 raids targeting at least 19 nongovernmental organizations in Minsk and other cities.
Activists said the offices searched on July 14 also included those of the Lawtrend rights group, the Association of the World's Belarusians Batslaushchyna (Fatherland), the Names project, the Territory of Rights group, the Gender Perspectives human rights organization, the Belarusian Association of Journalists, the Union of Belarusian Writers, the Belarusian Popular Front, the For Freedom movement, and the BEROC Center of Economic Investigations.
Belarusian authorities have moved to shut down critical and non-state media outlets and human rights bodies in the wake of mass protests last August after a presidential election the opposition said was rigged.
The opposition and Western governments say Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was driven into exile, won the vote.
U.S. Ambassador Julie Fisher, who has been unable to take up her post in Minsk because the Belarusian government has denied her a visa, said the raids showed Lukashenka was targeting Belarusians "who put country above self, unlike those who wield power."
Vyasna is the largest rights body in the former Soviet country and one of the main sources of information on political detentions and arrests.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election, widely seen as fraudulent.
Vyasna lawyer Uladzimer Labkovich said on Facebook that police also searched his home, while Natallya Pinchuk, the wife of Vyasna Chairman Ales Byalyatski told RFE/RL that her husband had inexplicably stopped answering phone calls.
The wife of the deputy chairman of Vyasna, Valyantsin Stefanovich, said her husband was detained after their home was searched and Vyasna said that its activist, Syarhey Sys, was also detained.
Another Vyasna activist, Alena Laptsyonak, said police searched her apartment and took her to the Investigative Committee in connection with a probe launched into the "organization of, and participation in group activities that violate civil order."
Several other senior officials at the other groups said their homes were searched and that raids and arrests of activists are taking place in several cities across Belarus.
Earlier in March, police informed Vyasna that a criminal case was launched against the group for activities that disrupted civil order. Several Vyasna activists were arrested at the time.
"By attacking human rights defenders, the regime wants to take revenge for all the rights violations that were recorded," Franak Viacorka, an adviser to Tsikhanouskaya, wrote on Twitter.
Belarus has been mired in turmoil since the disputed presidential election that gave Lukashenka his sixth consecutive term in power.
He has since put down street protests and dissent over the vote with sometimes lethal force, jailing thousands of people and forcing most opposition leaders who haven't been imprisoned to leave the country.
The West, which has refused to recognize the official results of the vote and does not consider Lukashenka to be the country's legitimate leader, has imposed several rounds of sanctions against the 66-year-old, some of his family members, other senior officials, and on key economic sectors.
Recently, the EU imposed further far-reaching penalties aimed at weakening the regime after the forced landing of a European passenger plane in Minsk and the arrest of an opposition blogger who was on board.
In April, Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimer Makey publicly warned that further Western sanctions against Lukashenka's government would be met by a crackdown on the country's civil society.
"Any further toughening of the sanctions will lead to the situation where civil society [in Belarus] of which they [in the West] care, will stop functioning. And that will be, I believe, absolutely grounded in the current situation," Makey said at the time.