Belarus has intensified its crackdown on independent activists and journalists with a "new wave of arbitrary arrests" ahead of presidential elections, Human Rights Watch (HRW) says.
With polls less than three months away, more than 120 peaceful protesters, opposition bloggers, journalists, and other critics of the government were arrested in 17 Belarusian cities between May 6 and 13, the New York-based human rights watchdog said on May 22.
It said that those detained were handed jail sentences of up to 25 days on charges of “participation in unsanctioned public gatherings” despite the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased risk of virus transmission in detention facilities.
The authorities "should not be arresting people for peaceful protests, but to expose them to higher risk of a deadly infection is unacceptable," said Tanya Lokshina, associate Europe and Central Asia director at HRW.
The group urged Minsk to "act on the calls by the World Health Organization and other expert international bodies…to minimize the number of people in custody during the coronavirus epidemic."
Belarus, which has reported more than 34,300 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including 190 deaths, hasn’t ordered a lockdown.
HRW said those arbitrarily arrested this month included environmental protestors who opposed the construction of a battery factory in the western city of Brest, supporters of a popular blogger who has announced he would run for president, and human rights defenders and journalists who reported on peaceful public gatherings.
One of the detained activists was diagnosed with COVID-19 shortly after his arrest, while another fell ill with coronavirus symptoms during his detention, according to HRW.
"Arresting people for participating in or reporting on peaceful gatherings is an unjust penalty even in normal times, and pursuing this practice during a pandemic is simply outrageous," Lokshina said.
Critics of authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has been in power in Belarus for more than 25 years, say his government has shown little tolerance for dissent and independent media.
The country has been the target of U.S. and EU sanctions over its poor rights record and lack of fair elections, but Belarus and the West have recently sought to mend ties to reduce Russia’s influence in the country.