Authorities in Belarus have raided offices and homes of dozens of human rights activists and journalists in a crackdown that comes just a day after the country’s authoritarian president promised to “deal with” non-governmental organisations he accuses of fomenting unrest.
Law enforcement officers raided the homes of several advocates at the prominent Viasna human rights centre, as well as offices of other Belarusian NGOs and homes of activists and journalists in various regions of the ex-Soviet state.
More than 40 raids took place all across the country.
“The most massive assembly line of repressions in the country’s modern history has been activated in Belarus,” Andrei Bastunets, head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, told the Associated Press after the group’s office in Minsk was raided on Wednesday morning.
The renowned Viasna centre has been monitoring human rights in Belarus for a quarter of a century.
Authorities revoked its credentials in 2003 and its leader, Ales Bialiatski, was arrested in 2012 and spent two years behind bars.
In the midst of the raids targeting Viasna, Mr Bialiatski’s whereabouts were unknown.
Other organisations targeted included the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, the World Association of Belarusians, the For Freedom movement and the Gender Perspectives association.
According to Viasna, journalists and rights activists in cities of Orsh, Grodno, Brest and others were also targeted in raids.
Last week, authorities conducted more than 30 raids on journalists and media organisations in the capital Minsk and other regions.
Seven journalists have been detained, including those working for the Nasha Niva newspaper, which has been banned by the authorities.
A total of 39 journalists are currently behind bars, either awaiting court appearances or convicted to prison terms.
Belarus’ State Security Committee — the KGB — announced earlier this month it was conducting a large-scale operation to “purge radically minded individuals.”
On Tuesday, president Alexander Lukashenko promised to bring to justice 1,500 NGOs and journalists he alleged were “funded from abroad”.
He claimed during his visit to Moscow on Tuesday that Western-funded organisations were fomenting unrest and denounced their alleged actions.
“We have started to work very actively to deal with all those NGOs… which were effectively promoting terror instead of democracy,” Mr Lukashenko said.
Belarus was rocked by months of protests after Lukashenko’s August 2020 election to a sixth term in a disputed vote that was widely seen as rigged.
Belarusian authorities responded to the protests with a massive crackdown, including police beating thousands of demonstrators and arresting more than 35,000 people.
Leading opposition figures have been jailed or forced to leave the country, while independent media outlets have had their offices searched and their journalists arrested.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Mr Lukashenko’s main challenger in the August 2020 election, who was forced to leave Belarus and is in exile in Lithuania, tweeted on Wednesday that Mr Lukashenko “wants to desolate the whole country”.
“The regime continues its massive attack on human rights defenders, activists, journalists,” Ms Tsikhanouskaya wrote.