Belarus raids homes and offices of journalists, rights activists

KYIV, July 16 (Reuters) – Belarusian police searched offices and homes of independent journalists and human rights activists for the third successive day on Friday, extending what President Alexander Lukashenko’s opponents say is a new crackdown on dissent.

The office of US broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was one of 19 premises searched, the Belarus Association of Journalists said, denouncing “a massive attack by security forces on journalists across the country.”

On its website, RFE/RL quoted witnesses as saying police had broken through the door of its office in the capital Minsk, and said the homes of two RFE/RL journalists had been searched.

Local human rights groups said at least five people had been detained on Friday, and 25 homes and offices had been searched.

Human rights organization Viasna-96 said those detained included two RFE/RL journalists. The wife of one, correspondent Aleh Hruzdzilovich, told RFE/RL that he had been led away in handcuffs by police who removed computers, phones and money.

Belarusian authorities gave no reason for the searches, and security officials were not immediately available for comment.

The authorities have shut down a number of non-state media outlets and rights groups since protests began last August against a presidential election which the opposition say was rigged. Lukashenko, in power since 1994, denies electoral fraud.

On Wednesday and Thursday, security officials conducted searches in around 20 human rights, charitable, media and expert institutions, detaining more than 15 people, including the head of Viasna-96.

The searches follow new sanctions imposed on Belarus by the European Union and the United States since Minsk diverted a passenger plane flying from Greece to Lithuania and detained a dissident journalist and his girlfriend who were on board.

PEN America and several other human rights bodies issued a statement describing the moves this week in the former Soviet republic as “flagrant action against civil society and independent media”, and demanded the release of those detained.

Writing by Pavel Polityuk, Editing by Timothy Heritage

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