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Belarusian Rights Group Says Some 130 Jailed As Annual Rally Nears


Ukrainian journalist Kristina Berdynskykh was among the foreign journalists briefly detained on March 24.

A Belarusian human rights group says that about 130 activists who have protested against an unemployment tax have been jailed for up to 15 days and will be unable to participate in fresh rallies on March 25.

The Minsk-based organization Vyasna (Spring) said on March 24 that the jail sentences will keep these arrested away from annual Dzen Voly (Freedom Day) rallies in the capital and other cities. It said more trials were under way or pending.

The annual rallies mark the anniversary of the short-lived Belarusian People's Republic, which existed for less than a year in 1918.

This year, it comes amid a wave of protests over legislation imposing a tax on jobless people. The demonstrations have continued despite President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's announcement earlier this month that the collection of the tax would be suspended for a year.

Activists say the authorities are jailing protesters on false grounds because they fear the March 25 rallies will draw large crowds.

Meanwhile, Belarus's KGB security service said late on March 23 that the number of people detained in a separate case in which detainees are accused of planning armed unrest had reached 26.

Lukashenka said on March 21 that some 20 armed militants -- who he said were trained in camps in Belarus, Ukraine and "most likely" Lithuania and Poland -- had been apprehended on suspicion of planning "armed provocations" nationwide.

Activists and opposition groups in Belarus, as well as officials of Ukraine and Lithuania, rejected Lukashenka's statement, saying it was groundless.

Journalists Detained

Ahead of the planned march, plainclothes security officers rounded up more than 10 people -- including local and foreign journalists -- at the Minsk office of the opposition Green Party.

Activists there had been collecting aid for relatives of those swept up in the wave of recent detentions.

The detained journalists included Halina Abakunchyk, a reporter with RFE/RL's Belarus Service, British journalist Gulliver Cragg of France 24, and Ukrainian journalist Kristina Berdynskykh of the Kyiv weekly Novoye Vremya.

Berdynskykh said on Facebook later on March 24 that the journalists had been released but that 10 other detainees remained at a local police station.

Cragg said on Twitter that he was released from police custody after 90 minutes and given an "apology."

Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Dzmitry Mironchyk told RFE/RL that the ministry was aware of the journalists' detentions and was investigating the matter.

Amnesty International on March 24 called on Belarusian authorities to "ensure that rallies planned in the capital, Minsk, and elsewhere on Freedom Day, March 25, are allowed to go ahead unhindered by excessive use of police force or arbitrary detentions of peaceful protesters such as those witnessed in recent weeks."

"Belarusian authorities must honor their international obligations and finally come to recognize peaceful protest as a fundamental right. In practice this means refraining from banning public rallies, using force against peaceful protesters or otherwise persecuting them," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's director for Europe and Central Asia.

"Public officials must stop depicting dissenters as a 'fifth column,' and instead ensure the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly for all."

Organizers of the Freedom Day march told RFE/RL that Minsk city authorities informed them that they were allowed to hold a gathering in Peoples' Friendship Park, which is on Minsk's outskirts, but not in the center.

The activists said that by law, the authorities were obligated to respond to their plan for a rally five days before the event, but that they stalled until March 24.

Organizers said they would stick to their original plan and march through central Minsk on March 25.

With reporting by BelTA
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