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Coordinator for Irish rights group among 57 arrested ahead of protests in Belarus

The head of the main opposition party was also arrested by police ahead of the protests in Minsk.

Image: Sergei Grits AP/Press Association Images

AUTHORITIES IN BELARUS raided the offices of a prominent rights group and detained dozens of people ahead of a planned protest later today.

Police also arrested the leader of the main opposition party in the country, as well as detaining dozens of protesters on the streets of the capital Minsk.

Viasna, a non-governmental association, said in a statement that fifty-seven of its observers were “physically searched, put onto a bus, and brought to be detained” at a local police station in Minsk.

The group said that the numbers detained included international observers, representatives of foreign media and human rights organisations.

The protection coordinator for Irish organisation Front Line Defenders, Masha Chichtchenkova, was among those detained by police.

Viasna’s lawyer Anastasiya Loika said that all those detained were released shortly after their unexplained arrest.

She said: “After we were brought to a gym, they started searching everyone. The policemen then read out the names and released us by threes”.

Scores of people that turned up for the 2:00 pm (11:00 Irish time) rally in Minsk were grabbed by riot police and placed in vans, including several journalists. Some were beaten, an AFP correspondent observed.

Today’s protest was the latest in a series of events against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Thousands have attended rallies in recent weeks to oppose a controversial new tax on  those who work less than six months a year, as the country suffers an economic slump, with the swell in protests alarming the government.

Authorities late yesterday told organisers that the event would be illegal. Today, scores of armoured police trucks and water cannons, as well as officers armed with automatic rifles could be seen in the city.

Heavy police presence

Belarus Protests Source: AP/Press Association Images

The square where the protest had been set to start was blocked by heavy police presence, with the metro exits sealed.

Police detained people at the scene, putting them in vans, but several hundred managed to walk with Belarusian red-and-white flags shouting “Shame!” before being broken up as riot police lined up to block main streets brandishing their shields.

Several journalists were also detained in Minsk and in Gomel, a city in southeastern Belarus, according to the Belarus Association of Journalists NGO. The team from Belsat, an opposition channel based in Poland, had their camera smashed, it said.

The Amnesty International rights group said on its Russian-language Twitter account that dozens of people were grabbed off the street “indiscriminately”.

Opposition leader Vladimir Nekliayev, who was set to speak at the protest, was stopped at the border Saturday morning on his way to Minsk, his wife told AFP.

“He is in a detention facility in Brest,” Olga Nekliayeva said, referring to the city in southwestern Belarus close to the Polish border.

Dozens had already been arrested ahead of today’s event, as state television aired reports of alleged weapons caches discovered while police armed with automatic rifles were in the city centre for the first time in decades.

Many had planned to travel to the capital from the provinces for the protest. Belarusian railway monopoly halted online sales for several hours overnight Friday to Saturday, ostensibly due to “technical works.”

With reporting from AFP - © – AFP, 2017

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Sean Murray

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