MINSK -- Security forces have raided the offices and homes of several independent journalists across Belarus, including the premises of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Minsk.
Witnesses said the officers broke through the door at RFE/RL's Minsk bureau on July 16 as part of a sweep targeting the media.
Separately, a court in the former Soviet republic sentenced 10 students and a teacher to 2 years and 6 months in prison on charges of violating public order, while another student was given two years.
The searches came two days after authorities raided the offices of a dozen human rights organizations and after the United Nations human rights chief said recent moves by Belarusian authorities were "completely unacceptable."
"Again a massive attack by security forces on journalists across the country," the Belarus Association of Journalists said in a statement listing 19 different searches carried out on journalists or their families on July 16.
The official Belta news agency quoted Uladzimer Shishko, an official at Belarus's Investigative Committee, which prosecutes major crimes, as saying the committee had acted on information about a "shadow movement of significant financial resources, primarily from abroad, tax evasion, and financing of various kinds of protest activity."
Nongovernmental organizations and independent media have previously dismissed such accusations.
Security officers searched the homes of RFE/RL correspondents Aleh Hruzdzilovich and Valyantsin Zhdanko.
Hruzdzilovich and former RFE/RL correspondent Ina Studzinskaya, whose accreditation was annulled in October, were detained.
Hruzdzilovich's wife told RFE/RL that her husband was taken away in handcuffs.
"His and my phones, all computers, and laptops were taken way. There were nine people. They also took all the money, even Belarusian rubles from my pocket. Also $300 that remained for me to live on," she added.
RFE/RL President Jamie Fly called the moves "intimidation tactics that will not silence our journalism."
"These raids and arrests testify to the despotic desperation of the Lukashenka regime to cling to power at all costs," Fly said in a statement.
"For decades, RFE/RL’s Radio Svaboda has been a source of news and inspiration to the people of Belarus. Lukashenka’s criminalization of independent journalism is a cynical attempt to exert absolute control over what the Belarusian people see and hear. We call on the regime to release our journalists immediately and return our property.”
Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenka’s main challenger in the August 2020 election, who was forced to leave Belarus under official pressure immediately after the vote, tweeted on July 16 that “the regime destroys every media that dares to tell the truth about the situation in Belarus.”
Overall, 32 Belarusian journalists are currently in custody, either serving their sentences or awaiting trial, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
Earlier this week, Belarusian police carried out sweeping raids against human rights groups and the media, including the Vyasna human rights center and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, in a sign that authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka was further ramping up his crackdown on dissent.
At least a dozen people were detained in the July 14 raids targeting at least 19 nongovernmental organizations in Minsk and other cities.
"I feel like we are back in Stalinism, somewhere in 1937. Every morning—pogroms and raids," Franak Viacorka, an adviser to Tsikhanouskaya, wrote on Twitter.
Belarusian authorities have moved to shut down critical and nonstate media outlets and human right bodies in the wake of mass protests last August after a presidential election that the opposition said was rigged. The opposition and the West say Tsikhanouskaya won the vote.
The journalists' association said it had received a notice on July 15 that it had one day to "take measures to eliminate" its failure to provide all documentation outlining the contracts for the legal addresses of some branches of the organization, as requested by the Justice Ministry.
Belarus has been mired in turmoil since the disputed presidential election that gave Lukashenka his sixth consecutive term in power.
He has since put down street protests and dissent over the vote with sometimes lethal force, jailing thousands of people and forcing most opposition leaders who haven't been imprisoned to leave the country.
In the case of the students sentenced on July 16, all pleaded not guilty to organizing and preparing actions that grossly violated public order.
"I am Belarusian and have the right to freedom of thought. But I never went beyond the law. I am not a criminal," student Anastasia Bulybenka told the court.
At least 100 students from different universities have been expelled in the crackdown, according to the Association of Belarusian Students, while criminal cases have been opened against at least 40 students.
The West, which has refused to recognize the official results of the vote and does not consider Lukashenka to be the country's legitimate leader, has imposed several rounds of sanctions against the 66-year-old, some of his family members, other senior officials, and on key economic sectors.
Recently, the EU imposed further far-reaching penalties aimed at weakening the regime after the forced landing of a European passenger plane in Minsk and the arrest of an opposition blogger who was on board.