Scores arrested as protestors defy ban to march in Belarus
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Police in the Belarusian capital have begun wide-scale arrests of protesters who had gathered for a forbidden demonstration that they hoped would build on a rising wave of defiance of the former Soviet republic’s authoritarian government.
About 700 people had tried to march along Minsk’s main avenue, but were blocked by a cordon of riot police wielding clubs and holding shields.
After a standoff, arrests began.
“They’re beating the participants, dragging women by the hair to buses. I was able to run to a nearby courtyard,” demonstrator Alexander Ponomarev said.
There were no immediate figures on how many people were taken into custody.
Earlier, police raided the office of the human-rights group Vesna. About 30 of its activists were detained, said Oleg Gulak of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee.
In the days preceding the demonstration, more than 100 opposition supporters were sentenced to jail terms of three to 15 days, Vesna reported before the raid. Prominent opposition figure Vladimir Neklayev reportedly was pulled off a train by police during the night while trying to travel to Minsk.
Belarus has seen an unusually persistent wave of protests over the past two months against President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled since 1994. After tolerating the initial protests, authorities cracked down. Lukashenko this week alleged that a “fifth column” of foreign-supported agitators was trying to bring him down.
Saturday’s demonstrators shouted slogans including “shame” and “basta (enough)” and deployed the red-and-white flag that is the opposition’s symbol. The flag was first used by the short-lived independent Belarusian People’s Republic in 1918 and again after independence from the Soviet Union, but was replaced in 1995 after Lukashenko gained power.
In his 23 years as president, Lukashenko has stifled dissent and free media and retained much of the Soviet-style command economy.
The protests this year initially focused on his unpopular “anti-parasite” law that calls for a $250 tax on anyone who works less than six months a year, but doesn’t register with the state labor exchange. But the protests broadened into general dissatisfaction with his rule, which some critics have characterized as Europe’s last dictatorship.
Protests attracted hundreds on Saturday in Brest and Grodno, two other large cities.
No arrests were immediately reported.
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