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Belarus: Fears of looming Freedom Day crackdown on peaceful protesters

    March 24, 2017

    Belarusian authorities must ensure that rallies planned in the capital Minsk and elsewhere on Freedom Day, 25 March, 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, Amnesty International said.

    This year’s turnout is expected to be the largest in years, fueled by public discontent over a punitive bill against the jobless and a notable drop in living standards in Belarus.

    “Belarusian authorities must honour 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.”

    The wave of peaceful street protests began in Belarus in mid-February after hundreds of thousands of Belarusians received tax bills under a Presidential Decree aimed at ending “social parasitism” – effectively, a tax on the unemployed.

    Although President Alyaksandr Lukashenka suspended the decree for a year to “correct” it, the protests spread and on 10, 11 and 12 March at least 48 people were detained in a crackdown across Belarus. Dozens more have been arrested since. Many of them were fined or held for up to 15 days.

    On 21 March, President Lukashenka accused “Western” organizations of financing the protests in order to instigate “scuffles and bloodshed” in the country. He also stated that some 20 “fighters” had been detained for “preparing armed provocations” on 25 March.