Belarus Authorities Unleash Another Wave Of Raids And Property Seizures Targeting Over 200 Activists

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Authorities in Belarus on Tuesday carried out raids and property seizures targeting more than 200 opposition activists, the latest step in the unrelenting government crackdown against dissent, coinciding with the opposition's “day of solidarity with Belarusian political prisoners.”

Belarus’ authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, began the clampdown in August 2020 in response to mass protests following his disputed reelection, denounced as rigged by the opposition and the West. More than 35,000 people have been arrested, thousands brutally beaten in custody, dozens of independent news organizations and rights groups shut down, and journalists imprisoned.

About 500,000 people, including key opposition figures, 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 Lukashenko's government.

State television aired footage on Tuesday of armed security operatives breaking down doors into apartments of opposition activists, searching and sealing them. One such apartment belonged to Yana Latushka, the daughter of Pavel Latushka, former Belarusian culture minister turned opposition figure.

Belarus’ Investigative Committee said it has opened a criminal case against 257 activists seeking a seat at the exiled Coordination Council, founded by opposition politicians as an alternative parliament in 2020. They had announced an online election for 80 seats in the council, scheduled to be held May 25-27.

The activists, most of whom have left the country, are being charged with "conspiracy to overthrow the government,” “calling for sanctions” and “forming an extremist group.” Those arrested on these charges could face up to 12 years in prison.

The committee's spokesman, Sergei Kabakovich, said that “arrests, searches and property seizures” were underway across Belarus and came as part of a large-scale investigation of the Coordination Council.

Pavel, the former minister, told The Associated Press that authorities were intensifying repressions against Belarusians at home and abroad out of fear that mass protests could erupt again.

“Lukashenko's regime fears any political alternative, and it has begun yet another phase of criminal persecution of its opponents, launching criminal cases against all participants of the election to the Coordination Council at once,” he said. “It is an attempt to scare Belarusians, who take a stand against the authorities and their policies.”

The opposition has marked Tuesday, May 21, as a day to show solidarity with political prisoners in Belarus.

According to Viasna, the country's oldest and most prominent human rights group, there are currently 1,392 political prisoners in Belarus, and new arrests take place every day. It says at least five political prisoners have died behind bars.

Last week, authorities raided and seized the local properties of 104 Belarusians, who live abroad and are vocally critical of the government.

Western officials this week reiterated calls for Belarusian authorities to release political prisoners and end the crackdown.

“All political prisoners of Belarus must be released,” the U.S. Embassy in Belarus said in a statement Tuesday. “We remember them every day because every day they unjustly remain imprisoned for believing in a free and democratic Belarus.”

The European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement Monday: “The regime is increasingly targeting also those who have fled the country.” He added that the EU "condemns the most recent wave of raids and property seizures of political activists who continue their pro-freedom activities in exile."