Kiev, Ukraine (AP) – Belarusian authorities announced Friday the closure of 15 non-governmental organizations as part of a widespread crackdown on independent media and civil society activists, including dozens of NGOs.
Groups that have been ordered to close include the Human Constanta human rights center, the Names charity, the anti-AIDS group BelSetka, and an organization that helps people with disabilities.
The groups were closed one day after the authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko had vowed to continue what he described as a “clean-up operation” against civil society activists whom he described as “bandits and foreign agents”.
In total, more than 50 NGOs are facing closure. These include the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), the largest and most respected media organization in the country, and the Belarusian PEN Center, an association of writers led by Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Human Constanta said in a statement that authorities had failed to explain why they decided to close the group, adding that the action reflected “growing pressure on civil society in Belarus”.
Also targeted is the Press Club, an organization that offers educational programs for journalists. Its head, Julia Slutskaja, and three other workers have been in custody since their arrest in December.
Amnesty International condemned the break-up of Belarusian NGOs and called for a “strong international response to ensure that the Belarusian authorities immediately put an end to their brutal crackdown on civil society”.
“Today is another dark day that will go down in Belarusian history,” said Marie Struthers, director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International. “Undeterred, the Belarusian authorities are pushing ahead with their unprecedented and increasingly brutal attacks on civilian space, all forms of opposition or peaceful contrasts.”
US Ambassador Julie Fisher also strongly condemned the breakup of NGOs and tweeted that the Belarusian authorities were trying to blame others “rather than their own role in creating the crisis in Belarus.”
According to the Viasna Human Rights Center, the Belarusian authorities carried out more than 200 raids on the offices and homes of activists and journalists against NGOs and independent media this month.
The independent Regionalnaya Gazeta said Friday it was forced to stop publishing following the raid on its office in Maladzyechna, 80 kilometers northeast of the Belarusian capital Minsk, and the arrest of several of its journalists. Another journalist, photographer Ksenia Halubovich, was arrested Friday while taking pictures in a children’s hospice in Minsk.
A total of 32 Belarusian journalists are in custody, either awaiting trial or serving their sentences.
“The ongoing harassment of the media and journalists in retaliation for their work shows once again the deliberate intention to prevent open debates and anti-government views on citizens of concern,” said Teresa Ribeiro, Freedom of the Media Representative for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
Lukashenko, who faced months of protests sparked by his election for a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that was viewed as rigged by the opposition and the West, responded to the demonstrations with a massive crackdown on which more when 35,000 people were arrested and thousands beaten by the police.
Relentless repression stifled protests, but in a rare demonstration of defiance late Thursday, a dozen protesters wore the opposition’s red and white flags walked through downtown Minsk. The Viasna Human Rights Center said it was the first public protest in a month.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s main contender in the elections, who had to leave Belarus under official pressure after the election, visited the United States this week to meet with officials from President Joe Biden’s administration and members of Congress to seek support for the Belarusian To gather opposition.
US Secretary of State Uzra Zeya, who was among the officials who met with Tsikhanouskaya, reiterated Washington’s support for Belarusians amid the raid, calling for the “unconditional release of all political prisoners, an end to violence and new free and fair elections. ”