On Saturday, March 25, Belarus came under the most repressive crackdown seen in seven years. More than 700 people were detained during afternoon protests, dubbed the Day of Freedom. In making these arrests, which occurred across the country, police particularly targeted civil activists, journalists, human rights defenders, and observers.
The demonstration was held in protest against Presidential Decree №3 “On prevention of social dependency.” Under this legislation, those who have worked less than 183 days per year must either pay a penalty or be subjected to administrative arrest. The law is a blatant violation of the country’s constitution, as well as international human rights law.
According to the website, Meduza, around 470,000 under-employed Belarussians must pay the so-called “social parasite” tax, which is 350 Belarusian rubles ($192). The country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, introduced the law in 2015. In response to mass outcry, on March 9, Lukashenko postponed the due date for payment of the tax for a year, saying that the legislation would remain in place but promising it would be amended.
Unsatisfied with this concession, on March 25, people gathered in Minsk and other cities around Belarus, including Brest, Homel, and Grodno. According to human rights defenders and observers, police started detaining people hours before protests even began, arresting both ordinary civilians and demonstrators.
Fifty-eight human rights defenders and observers were detained during a raid on the office of the Human Rights Centre ‘Viasna,’ as they were preparing to beginning monitoring the protests. After breaking into the office, special police units ordered everyone to lie down on the floor. They were then taken to the Pervomaisky district police station, where officers searched their personal belongings and recorded their information.
Front Line Defenders Protection Coordinator for Europe and Central Asia, Masha Chichtchenkova, was among those detained. Chichtchenkova, who is originally from Belarus, reported that the police did not use excessive force against the detainees, and released them approximately two hours later. Describing the motivations behind the arrests, Chichtchenkova said: “… they [the authorities] want to suppress a movement the likes of which we haven’t seen since 2011. Ahead of the protests, there were hundreds of preventative arrests targeting opposition leaders, human rights defenders, and civil society leaders known for organizing protests.”
Indeed, in the days ahead of the protests, a large number of opposition supporters and civil activists were detained. Many of these individuals were sentenced to fifteen days of administrative arrest. Uladzimir Labkovich, lawyer at Viasna, said in an interview with Front Line Defenders, that these preventative arrests, which were based on trumped-up charges, are a typical strategy used by the government. As Labkovich described, in the days leading up to the demonstrations, his colleagues—human rights defenders and lawyers—have been working in “tough and extreme conditions” keeping track of the detained, providing them and their families with legal support and monitoring the situation in the country.
Regional and international human rights organizations expressed solidarity with their colleagues in Belarus, commending their courageous resistance and condemning the government’s attempt to silence opposition. While the future remains uncertain for the people of Belarus, the perseverance and stamina exhibited on March 25 will not easily be broken.