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Belarusian Police Raids Homes of Journalists, Human Rights Activists

Head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) Andrei Bastunets (R) and Belarusian policemen leave the BAJ office after a raid in Minsk, Belarus, Feb. 16, 2021.

Belarusian security forces searched the homes of journalists and human rights activists in several cities across the country on Tuesday, intensifying a crackdown on mass protests against veteran President Alexander Lukashenko.

Police searched the homes of 25 members of the independent Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) and the human rights organization Viasna-96, Viasna-96 said.

The authorities in a statement connected the searches to an investigation into what they said was the financing of the protests by "organizations positioning themselves as human rights defenders."

More than 33,000 people have been detained in a violent crackdown following an election last August that Lukashenko's opponents say was blatantly rigged to hand the president a sixth term in office since 1994. He denies electoral fraud.

The crackdown has prompted new Western sanctions but Lukashenko has refused to resign, counting on diplomatic and financial support from traditional ally Russia, which sees Belarus as a buffer state against the European Union and NATO.

"They are looking for 'criminals' among those who help political prisoners and write about the struggle of Belarusians for freedom," wrote exiled opposition figure Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya about the raids.

"They look for 'criminals' in their parents' homes. But in search of criminals, they should look into the offices of the riot police, the GUBOPiK (interior ministry directorate) and all those responsible for the repression."

The raids came on the same day as the ongoing trial of two journalists from the Poland-based television channel Belsat in Minsk, who face up to three years in prison for reporting live from the protests.

Lukashenko held a two-day "People's Assembly" last week to discuss political reforms, which his opponents dismissed as a sham exercise to keep him in power.