Police in Belarus on Tuesday raided the homes and offices of more than 20 journalists, rights defenders and trade union members, investigators and activists said, as part of a probe into mass protests.
Belarus was gripped by months of demonstrations against the rule of strongman President Alexander Lukashenko after he claimed an overwhelming victory in an August election the opposition said was rigged.
The authorities snuffed out the protest movement in the ex-Soviet country by detaining thousands of people in a crackdown that left at least four demonstrators dead and several independent journalists facing years behind bars.
On Tuesday, police raided the homes of 22 people across the country, human rights group Viasna said, including Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) chief Andrei Bastunts, the leaders of several trade unions and several members of Viasna itself.
Belarus’s Investigative Committee, a body charged with probing major crimes, said the searches were part of a probe into the “organisation and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order”.
“As part of a preliminary investigation to establish the circumstances of the financing of protest activities, investigators initiated searches on organisations positioning themselves as human rights defenders,” the Investigative Committee said in a statement.
In addition to searches at the homes of several members, Viasna reported that police also came to its offices.
Bastunts’s wife Sabina Brilo told AFP that security forces had taken her husband from their home to the BAJ office to conduct a search there too.
In a defiant address to loyalists last week, Lukashenko claimed his country had defeated foreign attempts to overthrow his government.
The government has come down hard on independent media, with journalists detained 477 times last year, according to the BAJ, and several now facing criminal charges.
Two journalists were due in court Tuesday on charges of organising and preparing protests. The charges carry a maximum penalty of three years in prison.
In November, the governments of Britain and Canada bestowed the first ever Media Freedom Award to the BAJ for its “perseverance and self-sacrifice in the face of increased targeted crackdowns on media” in Belarus.