KYIV, Ukraine -- Authorities in Belarus raided the homes and offices of independent media outlets and civil society activists Friday, widening a crackdown on opposition in the ex-Soviet nation.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists and the Viasna human rights center said authorities searched the apartments and offices of at least 31 journalists and activists in the capital of Minsk and seven other cities.
“The authorities are using an entire arsenal of repressions against journalists — intimidation, beatings, searches and arrests,” Andrei Bastunets, the head of the journalists' association, said..
The country’s main security agency, which still goes under its Soviet-era name KGB, said those targeted were suspected of involvement in “extremist activities.”
Among those targeted Friday were 22 journalists who worked for the Belsat TV channel, which is funded by Poland, and for U.S.-funded broadcaster RFE/RL. Authorities broke down the door of RFE/RL’s office in Minsk.
RFE/RL journalist Aleh Hruzdzilovich was detained after the search of his family's home, his wife, Maryana, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Minsk.
“Nine people broke into our apartment, seized all the equipment and took Aleh away in handcuffs,” she said.
Viasna said authorities also raided the homes of Alena Anisim, head of the Union of Belarusian Language, and activists with the nongovernmental organization Legal Initiative.
Belarus' Investigative Committee, the top state investigative agency, said the raids were part of a probe into alleged tax evasion and violations of financial regulations by NGOs and media outlets.
The new raids continue a sweeping clampdown on independent media and non-government organizations in the country.
Earlier this week, law enforcement officers raided the homes of 10 Viasna workers, as well as the human rights center's offices in Minsk and other cities. They also searched a number of other Belarusian NGOs and journalists.
The action came after President Alexander Lukashenko, the longtime authoritarian leader of Belarus, promised to “deal with” organizations that he accuses of fomenting unrest.
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.
Belarusian authorities responded to opposition demonstrations with a massive crackdown, including police beating thousands of demonstrators and arresting more than 35,000 people. Leading opposition figures have been jailed or forced to leave the country, while independent media outlets have had their offices searched and their journalists arrested.
Overall, 32 Belarusian journalists are currently in custody, either serving their sentences or awaiting trial, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s main challenger in the August 2020 election, who was forced to leave Belarus under official pressure immediately after the vote, tweeted Friday that “the regime destroys every media that dares to tell the truth about the situation in Belarus.”
Also on Friday, 11 university students and a teacher were sentenced to 2 and 2 1/2-year prison terms on accusations of staging and coordinating protests last fall.
U.S. Ambassador to Belarus, Julie Fisher, condemned the verdict. “How fragile is a regime that can’t abide free expression and civic engagement by 11 university students? These young people present a profile in courage," she said on Twitter.
Fisher also said that Friday's raids targeting journalists “demonstrate cowardice and the inability to cope with truth-telling as opposed to the lionization and fantasies woven daily on state TV.”
RFE/RL strongly condemned Friday's raiding of its bureau and the detention of Hruzdzilovich and former RFE/RL correspondent Ina Studzinskaya and demanded their immediate release.
“These raids and arrests testify to the despotic desperation of the Lukashenko regime to cling to power at all costs," RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said in a statement. "Lukashenko's criminalization of independent journalism is a cynical attempt to exert absolute control over what the Belarusian people see and hear. These intimidation tactics will not silence our journalism.”
The European Union's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, denounced the crackdown in a statement issued Thursday.
“This new wave of repression is yet another proof that the Lukashenko regime is waging a systematic and well-orchestrated campaign with the ultimate aim to silence all remaining dissident voices and suppress civic space in Belarus,” Borrell said. “The severe violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms come at a price. The EU is ready to consider further restrictive measures in line with its gradual approach.”