Belarus police arrest hundreds of protesters
Belarusian authorities disrupt Minsk rally amid rising public anger over tax
A woman argues as Belarusian police during an opposition rally in Minsk. Photograph: Sergei Grits/AP Photo
Police officers detain a protester in Minsk, Belarus. Photograph: Stringer/EPA
Belarusian authorities detained hundreds of people on Saturday during an attempt to hold a street protest in the capital Minsk, amid rising public anger over falling living standards and an unpopular tax on the unemployed.
Protesters shouting slogans and waving signs were taken away by officers, along with passersby and at least 10 journalists.
Many of the protesters were beaten as they were taken away.
A Reuters reporter saw hundreds of police deployed to block off access points to the square where the protests were due to take place.
Nearby metro stations were closed and three water cannons kept on standby.
Earlier on Saturday, police raided the offices of Vesna-96, an opposition group, and detained about 60 activists, although they were later released, Vesna-96 said.
Saturday’s demonstration is the latest in a wave of protests since February that have posed the biggest challenge in years to president Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet state with an iron fist for nearly one-quarter of a century.
The hardship has brought even former Lukashenko supporters onto the streets.
“I voted for him [Lukashenko] but now I tell Lukashenko - leave,” said protester Lubov Sankevich (66).
“I’m afraid, but how long can we be afraid? Why should I be afraid of prison if I’m already in prison?”
The trigger for the unrest was a tax on citizens who work less than 183 days a year, known locally as a law against “social parasites”.
Belarusians said the tax punished those who were unable to find work.
Mr Lukashenko has suspended the tax in light of the backlash, but the protests have continued.
Saturday’s crackdown was the culmination of the Belarusian authorities hardening their position on the protests.
Mr Lukashenko earlier this week accused a “fifth column” of plotting to overthrow him with the help of foreign-backed fighters.
On Friday, he built on this theme, saying “someone wants to blow up the situation, and they use our scumbags”.
It is unclear how the crackdown on the protests will affect relations with Belarus’s neighbours.
Mr Lukashenko has sought to improve ties with the West against the backdrop of cooling relations with ex-Soviet master Russia.
He has pardoned several political prisoners, spurring the EU to lift sanctions against a country once described by the US as “Europe’s last dictatorship”.