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U.S. Senators Urge Lukashenka To Release Protesters, Warn Of Russia Risks

  • RFE/RL

Hundreds of antigovernment protesters were arrested on March 25, including several elderly people among those violently dragged away.

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has sent a letter to Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka expressing "great concern" over a crackdown on citizens protesting against a controversial tax on the unemployed and urged the "immediate" release of those detained.

The letter released on April 5 and signed by four senators also said they were concerned about Russia's use of Belarusian territory for "provocative war games" later this year.

Democrats Richard Durbin and Jeanne Shaheen signed along with Republicans Marco Rubio and John McCain.

Many Belarusians have expressed anger over the tax imposed by Lukashenka's government on the unemployed, a move the president said is aimed at battling "social parasitism."

The tax, reminiscent of Soviet-era legislation, imposes a special levy on Belarusians who work less than half of a calendar year and do not register at the country's labor bureaus, although it exempts homemakers, subsistence farmers, and some others.

Protests broke out in Minsk and throughout Belarus, leading to the arrest of dozens of protesters and activists in a government crackdown, actions both the United States and the European Union have sharply criticized.

The protests have continued despite Lukashenka's announcement on March 9 that the tax payments "will not be collected for a year," although he said the law would not be revoked.

In the letter, the senators said, "We remain troubled by the spate of politically motivated detentions and well as harassment of peaceful protesters, opposition party members, journalists, human rights defenders, and other civil society activists."

They urged the immediate and unconditional release of all people held in connection with the demonstrations.

The senators also had harsh words for the country's longtime ally Russia and expressed hope that Belarus "will not be the next victim of Vladimir Putin's ambitions."

Moscow is planning its Zapad (West) military maneuvers for September this year in a joint effort with Belarus along Russia's western border.

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