Authorities in Belarus raided the offices of an independent newspaper and arrested three of its journalists on Monday as part of a relentless crackdown on media outlets and civil society activists.
Alyaksandr Mantsevich, editor of the Regionalnaya Gazeta (Regional Newspaper), and journalists Zoya Khrutskaya and Nasta Utkina, were detained, said the Belarusian Association of Journalists, or BAJ.
They were taken into custody after the search of the newspaper’s office in Maladzyechna, 80 kilometers (50 miles) northeast of the Belarusian capital, Minsk.
BAJ said that a total of 64 searches have been conducted over the last 10 days. Thirty-two journalists in total are in custody, either awaiting trial or serving their sentences.
“The authorities have turned life into hell for independent journalists in Belarus with a conveyor belt of searches and arrests,” BAJ head Andrei Bastunets said. “There is an impression that the authorities have decided to leave the country without journalists.”
On Monday, authorities also froze the bank accounts of the Belarusian PEN Center, an association of writers led by Svetlana Alexievich, the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature.
Alexievich, a member of the opposition Coordination Council, left Belarus last year after being summoned for questioning by the state investigative agency.
On Monday, a court in Minsk also handed out prison sentences ranging from five to nine years to 11 people who were accused of coordinating “radical actions” and planning arson on a messaging app.
One of them, 26-year-old Yevgeny Propolsky, who was sentenced to eight years in prison, said during the trial that investigators beat and tortured him to force confessions.
“They threatened me, beat and tortured me with electric current,” Propolsky said. “They forced me to write a confessional testimony.”
The Viasna human rights centre recognised the 11 people sentenced on Monday as political prisoners, saying there are a total of 562 in the country now.
Viasna said the searches Monday targeted civil society activists and human rights defenders in the cities of Brest and Pinsk in western Belarus.
Belarus was rocked by months of protests after President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s August 2020 election to a sixth term in a vote that the opposition and the West saw as rigged.
Political instability, sanctions
Belarusian authorities responded to opposition demonstrations with a huge 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.
The West has responded to the crackdown by imposing sanctions on Belarus.
The United States, European Union, Britain and Canada last month jointly imposed new sanctions on Belarus after a Ryanair passenger flight was grounded in Minsk on the pretext of a security threat, with authorities arresting an opposition journalist and his girlfriend who were on board.
The government in neighbouring Lithuania has accused Belarusian authorities of organising a flow of migrants from the Middle East and Africa in retaliation.
Lukashenko, who has ordered to halt cooperation with the EU on stemming illegal migration, said Monday that Belarus could contain the flow of migrants if the bloc rolls back the sanctions.
“They have introduced sanctions to strangle us,” Lukashenko said. “They take such action against the Belarusian people and they want us to protect them – listen, it’s really weird. If you want us to help you, don’t put a noose around our neck.”
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s main challenger in the August 2020 election, was forced to leave Belarus under official pressure immediately after the vote.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday met with Tikhanovskaya, who urged greater pressure on the regime that she says rigged last year’s elections.
Blinken joined a meeting between Tikhanovskaya and State Department number three Victoria Nuland, known as a forceful critic of Moscow, in a show of support a day before the Belarusian opposition chief holds meetings at the White House.