World

Belarus targets opposition activists with raids and property seizures

TALLINN, Estonia — (AP) — Authorities in Belarus on Thursday announced raids and the seizure of property belonging to 104 opposition activists who have fled the country, the latest step in a crackdown on dissent that has continued unabated for nearly four years.

Belarus' authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, unleashed the crackdown in August 2020, when mass protests erupted against his rule following his disputed reelection that the opposition and the West have denounced as rigged.

More than 35,000 people have been arrested, thousands have been brutally beaten in custody, and dozens of independent news organizations and rights groups have been shut down, and journalists imprisoned.

About 500,000 people have since fled the country of 9.5 million, and the authorities this year began a campaign against Belarusians abroad who call for tougher sanctions against the country.

Belarus' Investigative Committee said Thursday the latest raids and seizures targeted activists who criticized Belarusian authorities abroad and rallied to mark the anniversary of Belarus' independence. The authorities launched a criminal probe on the charges of “forming an extremist group” and “discrediting Belarus," criminal offenses that can result in prison terms of up to seven years.

Officials said they tracked down participants of the rallies in Poland, Lithuania, Belgium, Georgia, the Czech Republic, the U.S. and other countries that took place on March 25 to mark the first time Belarus had been declared an independent state in 1918 — an anniversary the Belarusian opposition celebrates every year.

Investigative Committee spokesman Sergei Kabakovich said in a statement that the activists were “fugitive puppets,” and he accused them of “calling for economic and political pressure on our country.”

Belarus' opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who in 2020 left the country under pressure from the authorities, said the raids and the seizures are "the authorities' revenge on Belarusians who continue to fight the dictatorship."

“Lukashenko's regime tries to sow fear among Belarusians not just inside Belarus, but abroad, as well,” Tsikhanouskaya said. “Belarusians are living in tough conditions that appear similar to Stalin times — toughening repressions, arbitrary arrests and constant instability.”

Viasna, Belarus' oldest and most prominent rights group, has counted just under 1,400 political prisoners in Belarus, including the group's founder Ales Bialiatski, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022.

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