Human Rights Group Says Belarus Holding Over 560 Political Prisoners

A human rights group said there are over 560 political prisoners being held in Belarus as part of the continued crackdown on activists and media outlets that oppose Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Viasna human rights center said there is a current total of 562 political prisoners in the country, including 11 people who were convicted on Monday. Viasna said the raids performed by Belarusian authorities on Monday targeted civil society activists and human rights defenders in western Belarus.

The raids were part of a continued massive crackdown that began when police beat thousands of demonstrators and arrested more than 35,000 people at protests in response to Lukashenko's sixth term.

Opposition figures have been arrested as political prisoners or forced to leave Belarus, and independent media outlets have faced raids by authorities and had their journalists arrested. On Monday, Three journalists from an independent newspaper were arrested during a search of the paper's offices.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Portugal Belarus protest
A human rights group says there are over 560 political prisoners being held in Belarus. A Belarusian resident in Portugal wears a protective mask as she holds a sign demanding freedom for political prisoners during a protest in Praça Rossio against the detention of Roman Protasevich and other journalists by Belarus government during COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic on May 30 in Lisbon, Portugal. Horacio Villalobos/Corbis via Getty Images

Alyaksandr Mantsevich, the 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 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."

Belarus was rocked by months of protests after Lukashenko's August 2020 election to a sixth term in a vote that the opposition and the West saw as rigged.

The West has responded to the crackdown by imposing sanctions on Belarus. The European Union ramped up the restrictions after Belarus diverted a passenger jet to Minsk in May to arrest a dissident journalist. The government in neighboring Lithuania has accused Belarusian authorities of organizing 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 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. She was in Washington on Monday for meetings with officials and U.S. House members to rally support for the Belarusian opposition.

"They have the power, they have weapons and they have been trying to silence people," Tsikhanouskaya said. "But we have been standing up to them for a year."

Alexander Lukashenko
Belarus' authorities, on Monday, raided offices of an independent newspaper and detained three of its journalists as part of a continuing crackdown on media outlets and civil society activists. In this Friday, July 9 file photo, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko addresses members of Belarus National Olympic team ahead of the Summer Olympics Games in Tokyo, Minsk, Belarus. Maxim Guchek/BeITA Pool Photo via AP