MINSK -- Riot police deployed in force in the Belarusian capital on March 26, preventing protesters from holding a rally one day after a violent crackdown that activists said saw hundreds of people arrested and many beaten.
Thousands of people have taken to the streets across Belarus in recent weeks in the country’s largest antigovernment demonstrations in years (read latest in Belarusian-language live blog here).
Demonstrators have been trying to build on discontent that has been growing in Belarus since President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s government began enforcing a tax against people who don’t have full-time employment.
The 2015 law, known popularly as the law against "social parasites," went into effect earlier this year, sparking protests that have broadened into general dissatisfaction against Lukashenka’s 23-year rule, which many Western countries have described as Europe’s last dictatorship.
In the past, most political protests have been limited to Minsk and other major cities, but notably, the demonstrations of recent weeks have popped up in smaller towns and cities.
Several dozen people were detained in Minsk March 26, as protesters began gathering in central October Square. Riot police rounded up protesters, in some cases forcefully herding them into police vans.
Police conducted searches in other cities across the country ahead of time as well.
Tatsyana Revyako, an activist from a Belarusian human rights group called Vyasna (Spring), said on March 25 that an estimated 700 people were arrested in Minsk.
WATCH: Belarusians Protest In Homel And Brest
“Many of the arrested were beaten and are in need of medical assistance,” she said.
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.
Some political observers have speculated that Lukashenka was allowing the demonstrations to take place as a way to release pressure on the country’s beleaguered economy.
IN PICTURES: Police Detain Protesters In Minsk
Belarus is heavily dependent on cheap oil imports from Russia, which it refines and then exports to Europe and elsewhere.
The country is also heavily dependent on trade with Russia, and remittances from Belarusians working there, something that has suffered due to Russia’s own economic problems.
The European Union has condemned the Belarusian authorities’ actions against protesters and demanded an immediate release of “all recently detained peaceful citizens.”
Opposition Leader Detained
Opposition leader and former presidential candidate Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu was detained late on March 24 in the western city of Brest, where he is currently being held in a detention facility.
Nyaklyeau was on his way to Minsk from Warsaw after talks with Polish government officials. He was stopped at the border and taken off a train, his wife, Olga Nyaklyaeva, said.
Nyaklyaeu had been scheduled to appear in court on March 24 to face charges of participation in previous protests, but the trial was delayed when he failed to show.
Nyaklyeau was planning to lead the rally in Minsk along with prominent opposition leader Mikalay Statkevich.
Statkevich, a former presidential candidate, said he still planned to attend the protest, but he did not attend and his whereabouts were unknown late on March 25.
Statkevich’s wife, Maryna Adamovich, told RFE/RL she was briefly detained by authorities at the March 25 Minsk demonstration and that she has not heard from her husband since March 23.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Belarus Service correspondent Alyaksandr Dynko in Minsk; AP and AFP