MINSK -- Organizers of the annual Freedom Day event in Minsk say city police have officially refused to agree to provide security for the participants on March 25, dealing the group a major blow to holding a rally to mark the 103rd anniversary of the short-lived Belarusian People's Republic, which existed for less than a year in 1918.
Ryhor Kastusyou, chairman of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front (BNF) party, told RFE/RL on March 22 that the police cited pandemic restrictions and "ongoing calls from several extremist channels in Telegram" to hold unsanctioned street protests on the day, March 25, as the reasons for refusing to provide security.
That reference appears to refer to a statement from Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who on Telegram called for Belarusians to continue their nationwide protests with street rallies on March 25 against Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has run the country since 1994.
Kastusyou said that there wasn't enough time to appeal the decision in court, and that without police security it was unlikely organizers would receive official permission from the city executive committee to hold their event.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our coverage as Belarusians continue to demand the resignation of Alyaksandr Lukashenka amid a brutal crackdown on protesters. The West refuses to recognize him as the country's legitimate leader after an August 9 election considered fraudulent.
Tsikhanouskaya is currently in Lithuania, where she relocated for security reasons after the presidential election that she and her supporters say she won.
Lukashenka's victory declaration has sparked protests that have seen tens of thousands take to the streets demanding that he leave.
Security officials have cracked down hard on the demonstrators, arresting thousands and pushing most top opposition figures out of the country. Several protesters have been killed in the violence and some were handed prison terms. Rights organizations say there is credible evidence of torture being used against some of those detained.
Authorities appear to be continuing their crackdown ahead of Freedom Day with the March 21 arrest in Minsk of Ihar Barysau, chairman of the opposition Social Democratic Party and one of the initiators of the March 25 public event, on an unknown charge.
In the eastern city of Mahilyou, activist Raman Davydau, who has applied to the city administration to hold a Freedom Day event in his city, says he was officially warned by local prosecutors of possible criminal repercussions for holding unsanctioned public events.
Kastusyou says he and others who asked Minsk city authorities for the permission to hold an event might be also detained before March 25.
Belarusian KGB Chief Ivan Tertel has said that his team is "aware of plans to destabilize the situation in the country on March 25-27," while Deputy Interior Minister Mikalay Karpyankou has stated that "any unsanctioned rallies will be dispersed in a tough manner" similar to how law enforcement dispersed the mass protests against the official results of the August presidential poll that handed victory to Lukashenka.
Lukashenka has denied any wrongdoing and refuses to negotiate stepping down and holding new elections.
The European Union, United States, Canada, and other countries have refused to recognize Lukashenka, 66, as the legitimate leader of Belarus and have slapped him and senior Belarusian officials with sanctions in response to the “falsification” of the vote and postelection crackdown.