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Scores detained as Belarus opposition protest broken up

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Riot police officers detain a people during a rally against President Alexander Lukashenko’s rule and a controversial new tax on “spongers” (those who work less than six months a year) on March 25, 2017 in Minsk. Belarus authorities raided the offices of a prominent rights group mARCH 25, detaining dozens of people ahead of a planned protest, including foreign rights workers, the group said. Thousands have attended rallies in recent weeks to oppose a controversial new tax on “spongers” — those who work less than six months a year — as the country suffers an economic slump, with the swell in protests alarming the government. VASILY MAXIMOV / AFP

People gather to protest against President Alexander Lukashenko’s rule and a controversial new tax on “spongers” – those who work less than six months a year – in central Minsk on March 25, 2017. Sergei GAPON / AFP

Belarus authorities raided the offices of a prominent rights group Saturday, detaining dozens of people on the day of a planned protest, including foreign rights workers, the group said.

Police also detained dozens in the streets and seized leading opposition leader Vladimir Nekliayev as he was returning from Poland, taking him off the train at the border and placing him in a detention facility.

Scores of people that turned up for the 2:00 pm (1100 GMT) rally were grabbed by riot police and placed in vans, including several journalists. Some were beaten, an AFP correspondent observed.

Viasna, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that had been tracking arrests and protest rallies in Belarus in recent weeks, said riot police had broke down the door, “put people face down on the floor and told them to stay there”.

“There were 57 people detained, including foreign observers,” it said on its website.

Those detained were taken to a police station, where they were told they are “suspected of banditism,” searched and let out of the station in small groups after most of the protest had been broken up, the group’s lawyer Anastasiya Loiko said.

Saturday’s protest was the latest in a series of events against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Thousands have attended rallies in recent weeks to oppose a controversial new tax on “spongers” — those who work less than six months a year — as the country suffers an economic slump, with the swell in protests alarming the government.

Authorities late Friday told organisers that the event would be illegal. On Saturday, scores of armoured police trucks and water cannons, as well as officers armed with automatic rifles could be seen in the city.

– Heavy police presence –
The square where the protest had been set to start was blocked by heavy police presence, with the metro exits sealed.

Police detained people at the scene, putting them in vans, but several hundred managed to walk with Belarusian red-and-white flags shouting “Shame!” before being broken up as riot police lined up to block main streets brandishing their shields.

Several journalists were also detained in Minsk and in Gomel, a city in southeastern Belarus, according to the Belarus Association of Journalists NGO. The team from Belsat, an opposition channel based in Poland, had their camera smashed, it said.

The Amnesty International rights group said on its Russian-language Twitter account that dozens of people were grabbed off the street “indiscriminately”.

Opposition leader Nekliayev, who was set to speak at the protest, was stopped at the border Saturday morning on his way to Minsk, his wife told AFP.

“He is in a detention facility in Brest,” Olga Nekliayeva said, referring to the city in southwestern Belarus close to the Polish border.

Dozens had already been arrested ahead of Saturday’s event, as state television aired reports of alleged weapons caches discovered while police armed with automatic rifles were in the city centre for the first time in decades.

Many had planned to travel to the capital from the provinces for the protest. Belarusian railway monopoly halted online sales for several hours overnight Friday to Saturday, ostensibly due to “technical works.”

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