Belarus leader vows to keep up raids of NGOs, media outlets

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KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The longtime leader of Belarus vowed Thursday to continue a crackdown on civil society activists he regards as “bandits and foreign agents.”

President Alexander Lukashenko chided officials in his administration for allowing the operation of non-governmental organizations that he called “harmful to the state.”

“A mopping-up operation is going on,” Lukashenko said. “Do you think it’s easy? There are thousands of our people working for them, and their brains are distorted and brainwashed with foreign money.”

Belarusian authorities have ramped up raids and arrests of independent journalists and civil society activists in recent weeks.

The Viasna human rights center said the country’s law enforcement agencies have conducted more than 200 searches of offices and apartments of journalists and activists so far this month. The center said authorities detained 11 activists Thursday.

The Belarusian Association of Journalists said authorities raided the apartment of freelance journalist Tanya Smotkina in the town of Hlybokaye for the second time this month and detained her for interrogation on charges of “inciting strife.”

A journalist who worked for the U.S.-funded broadcast RFE/RL and was detained last week, Ina Studzinskaya, declared a hunger strike Thursday to protest authorities refusing to give her access to her lawyer, the journalists' association said.

The deputy head of the association, Boris Goretsky, said Studzinskaya was kept in cell without a mattress where the lights were kept on around the clock.

Overall, 31 Belarusian journalists are in custody awaiting trial or serving sentences.

The Justice Ministry asked the country’s highest court on Wednesday to shut the Belarusian Association of Journalists over alleged flaws in office lease documents. BAJ said it couldn’t provide the necessary documents to respond to the complaints because its headquarters have been sealed since a police raid last week.

On Thursday, the ministry also appealed to the court to close the Belarusian PEN Center, an association of writers led by Svetlana Alexievich, the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature.

Alexievich, a member of the opposition Coordination Council in Belarus, left the country last year after being summoned for questioning by the state investigative agency.

Earlier this week, authorities froze the PEN Center's bank accounts.

“Shutting the PEN Center reflects the overall catastrophic situation in the country with authorities trying to immediately silence everyone,” the organization's deputy head, Taciana Niadbaj, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Minsk. “But even in this atmosphere of fear and repressions we will continue the fight and appeal the authorities' move.”

Lukashenko, who faced months of protests triggered by his election to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that the opposition and the West saw as rigged, responded to demonstrations with a sweeping crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s main election challenger, was forced to leave Belarus under official pressure after the election. She visited the United States this week for meetings with Biden administration officials and U.S. lawmakers to rally support for the Belarusian opposition.

“When you look me in the eye, you see the eyes of every political prisoner, every activist, every Belarusian who wants to live in a free country,” Tsikhanouskaya told members of U.S. Congress.