Crackdown against civil society intensifies in Belarus
Since mass protests began in February 2017, the Belorussian authorities have intensified the crackdown against civil society. According to a March 2017 report by local rights group Viasna, to date:
- Approximately 100 activists have been detained and sentenced for their participation in protests;
- NGO offices and media outlets have been raided; and
- More than 50 volunteers, journalists and other representatives of foreign and international organisations have been detained.
In addition, there have been numerous arbitrary arrests of citizens to prevent their participation in protests. The regime has cited national security concerns to justify its curtailment of civic liberties.
In a country where protest is criminalised and often violently suppressed, over the last several months Belorussians have mobilised in mass protests in the capital Minsk and several regions of the country.
Protests began in mid-February with several thousand demonstrating against Presidential Decree #3 (2015) - known as the 'Parasite Tax' - that introduced an unemployment tax for those who officially work fewer than 183 days per year. The protest movement, which began in the capital, Minsk, spread to other cities and regional centres throughout the country. In response to the growing public dissent, on 9th March 2017, President Lukashenka placed a moratorium of one year on the decree. Protests, however, continued throughout March.
As the regime's fears of a 'colour revolution' grew, in early March - ahead of Freedom Day protest plans - preemptive arrests were made of activists and protest organisers, as well as journalists and bloggers reporting on the protests. Freedom Day on 25th March is an unofficial holiday commemorating Belarus's declaration of independence in 1918. This year, despite the pressure from the authorities, a mass protest was organised in Minsk. Security forces were prepared for the Freedom Day protest and swiftly broke up the demonstration, seizing and arresting hundreds of protesters.
In the government's crackdown against peaceful protests, media professionals in particular have been severely impacted. According to IFEX, since 24th March 2017, law enforcement agencies have detained approximately 90 journalists in connection with their reporting on the protests. The Belorussian Association of Journalists has monitored the situation, compiling a list of detained journalists to advocate for their release.