Belarus lists military unit members among 625 ‘extremists’

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Authorities in Belarus on Friday added 625 people with alleged ties to “extremists” to a list that prohibits them from holding public office and other activities, further ramping up pressure on the beleaguered opposition.

The eastern European country’s Ministry of Internal Affairs released a sweeping update that increased the number of blacklisted individuals by a third, to a total of 1,469. The additions included opposition activists, businesspeople, journalists and others who participated in or covered antigovernment protests that rocked Belarus for several months in 2020.

The mass demonstrations followed a disputed presidential election which strongman Alexander Lukashenko claimed to have won with over 80% of the vote. The main opposition challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, fled to Lithuania after the vote under official pressure, and the government unleashed a sweeping crackdown on protests, arresting more than 35,000 people.

The Viasna Human Rights Center, whose founder, Ales Bialiatski, was named a co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize this month, described the expansion of the extremism watch list as part of a broader climate of repression amid Lukashenko’s support for Russia’s war on Ukraine.

“Arrests, searches, torture in detention centers continue in Belarus, pressure is put on political prisoners, and all those who disagree (with the government) are designated as extremists,” Viasna said in a statement.

“Repressions are ongoing in respects of citizens who actively voice their civic position regarding the war in Ukraine, launched by Russia,” it said.

Among those added to the interior ministry’s list of alleged extremists were members of the Pahonia regiment, an all-Belarusian military unit that aids the Ukrainian army in its fight against Russia’s aggression.

Listed individuals are barred from public office, teaching and publishing activities, and military service within Belarus, while anyone found to be disseminating “extremist” material faces a criminal charge punishable by a prison term of up to seven years.

Aksana Kolb, editor-in-chief of the independent weekly newspaper Novy Chas, was another individual branded “extremist” on Friday. The publication was blocked in Belarus and Kolb was jailed for several months over its protest coverage. She described Minsk’s ongoing clampdown on its opponents as a sign of fear over “growing discontent in the country.”

“The authorities are trying to label anyone who expresses their position as an ‘extremist’ in order to shut their mouth and create a vacuum around that person,” Kolb, who left Belarus following her release from prison, told The Associated Press.

Minsk’s “extremist” register includes individuals and organizations, as well as media outlets and websites. Social media accounts linked to Valery Tsepkalo, an opposition politician and former presidential candidate who now lives abroad, were added Friday.

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