6 July 2011

Authorities celebrate independence by cracking down on protesters

Protesters in Minsk, Belarus, take part in a silent action on 22 June
Protesters in Minsk, Belarus, take part in a silent action on 22 June
Here's how Belarus's Independence Day on 3 July was marked this year: the authorities used tear gas and arrested more than 300 journalists and anti-government protesters in Minsk, and blocked access to Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites used by the organisers, say Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Human Rights Watch and Index on Censorship. The day marks the anniversary of the liberation of Belarus from German occupation in 1944.

According to RSF and news reports, the authorities staged concerts to occupy the main squares and deny access to protesters, and deployed thousands of police and secret service agents in plain clothes as an additional deterrent.

But that didn't stop at least 800 people from gathering in central Minsk. Using a new tactic introduced by young activists earlier this year, they did not hold signs or chant, but instead clapped their hands in unison every two to three minutes to show their opposition to President Alexander Lukashenko.

"Belarus continues to ride roughshod over human rights, but these latest mass arrests and use of tear gas against peaceful protesters show that attacks on freedom of expression appear to be intensifying," said Amnesty International.

"These blocks on communication are an attempt to cut off demonstrators from each other and clearly violates the right to freedom of expression," Amnesty added.

Meanwhile, President Lukashenko, who appeared at a military parade in Minsk to mark Independence Day, blamed the unrest on foreign intervention, report Amnesty and news reports. He warned that "an escalation of information intervention is under way" in Belarus as part of plans drawn up in "the capitals of separate countries" allegedly to bring about a popular revolution.

"We understand the goal of these attacks. It is to sow uncertainty and disturbance, destroy public consent, and [..] nullify efforts done to gain independence. This will never happen," he said.

Eager to avoid protests on the national holiday, the government on Saturday began blocking access to the social media sites, including VKontakte, a Russian version of Facebook. RSF says those trying to connect to VKontakte were reportedly redirected to websites containing malware.

According to RSF, among those arrested were 15 journalists, including correspondents for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the independent paper "Nasha Niva".

A local television journalist who was detained while filming the protest told Human Rights Watch that police assaulted him and broke his camera.

While some have been released, 340 people remain in detention in Minsk and other cities. Trials are ongoing, and the detainees are being charged with minor hooliganism or participation in an unsanctioned meeting, offences which involve short administrative sentences of 10-15 days.

Foreign journalists had their visas cancelled at the last moment, such as a BBC TV crew who had planned to cover Independence Day festivities, says RSF.

Public discontent is swelling as Belarus experiences its worst financial crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union.

At a similar protest on 29 June, Belarusian police grabbed and assaulted more than a dozen reporters, broke their equipment and detained another 150 protesters at a political rally in Minsk and Brest, report the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and RSF. According to RSF, at least nine journalists were arrested during a 22 June silent demonstration.

Under the "Revolution through Social Networks" campaign, activists have been using social networks to organise rallies across the country on Wednesday evenings for the past month, which have drawn thousands of protesters - and corresponding crackdowns.

"Clamping down on peaceful protesters does nothing to address the root causes of their grievances, which relate primarily to the economic situation," said Amnesty.

According to news reports, Moscow has been pushing for greater control over the Belarusian economy in exchange for loans to help Lukashenko's government weather the financial turmoil, while the European Union has threatened to expand sanctions imposed on Lukashenko as punishment for his crackdown.

In a separate incident, Andrzej Poczobut, the correspondent of the Polish newspaper "Gazeta Wyborcza" in the western city of Hrodna, Belarus, has been given a three-year suspended jail sentence after spending three months in pre-trial detention on a charge of defaming Lukashenko in a series of reports posted on his blog and other websites.

"It was only because of pressure from the European Union and the international community that the authorities did not leave me in prison," Poczobut told RSF after the trial.

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