Belarus arrests well-known activist on charges punishable by up to 4 years in prison, group says

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TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Authorities in Belarus have arrested a well-known activist on charges punishable by up to four years in prison, the country's oldest rights group said Tuesday in what appears to be the latest in the yearslong crackdown on dissent.

Dzmitry Kuchuk, whose Green Party was shut down last year, has been charged with “organizing activities that grossly violate public order,” according to the Viasna human rights center.

The center said Kuchuk, 50, was arrested on Feb. 16 in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, near the Russian Embassy, where he went to lay flowers and light a candle in memory of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, whose sudden death in a remote Arctic prison was announced that day.

The authorities ordered Kuchuk jailed for successive 15-day stints and then filed criminal charges against him, Viasna said.

Belarus, Russia's neighbor with a population of 9.5 million, was rocked by mass protests after a disputed election in August 2020 gave its authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko his sixth term in office.

The opposition and the West denounced the vote as fraudulent, and a months-long wave of demonstrations rolled through the country. Security forces dispersed the rallies and arrested more than 35,000 people.

All prominent opposition figures ended up in jail or in exile abroad. The crackdown has continued, with opposition activists, independent journalists and rights advocates targeted in arrests and raids.

Kuchuk “was unnerving the security forces, he didn't leave, he didn't lock himself in the closet and took efforts to start a campaign to gather signatures for the release of political prisoners," said Anatol Lyabedzka, aide to Belarusian opposition leader in exile Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

His Green Party was liquidated by the Belarusian Supreme Court last July as part of a government purge of political parties ahead of the 2024 parliamentary election. It was once a member of the European Green Party.

In December, Kuchuk tried to run for a seat in the parliament, but was barred from running. He is the seventh Belarusian party leader behind bars.

According to Viasna, there are some 1,400 political prisoners in the country, including the group's leader and the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize winner Ales Bialiatski.