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In Belarus, one-armed man arrested for clapping

The crackdown in Belarus grew more indiscriminate this week. Among the 400 arrested: a one-armed man charged with taking part in the clapping protests and mute person accused of shouting antigovernment slogans.

By Correspondent / July 8, 2011

Belarusian plainclothes policemen block a central street to protect it from an opposition action 'Revolution via social network' in Minsk, Belarus, July 7. The center of Minsk is teeming with police preparing for the next in a series of weekly demonstrations calling for the ouster of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Sergei Grits/AP

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Moscow

The sound of one hand clapping may be one of those proverbial mysteries, but a man was arrested and seriously punished in Minsk this week for allegedly doing it.

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It's a little whiff of absurdity amid a wave of unrelentingly grim news from Belarus, where "Europe's last dictator" Alexander Lukashenko is digging in against growing public protests over a collapsing economy that's gutted living standards and left hundreds of thousands out of work since January in the little post-Soviet country of 10 million.

In order to evade tough regulations on public rallies, protesters eschew placards and shouted slogans, and merely clap their hands to display their anger at Mr. Lukashenko's policies. Since the weekly flash mob protests began last month, more than 1,700 people have been arrested – 400 this week alone. Most of them were fined heavily or jailed for up to 15 days on police court testimony that they were expressing a political opinion by clapping their hands in public.

But Konstantin Kaplin, an unemployed man from the western town of Grodno, says he was convicted this week of applauding in public and fined the equivalent of $200, despite overwhelming evidence of his innocence: He is officially registered as a disabled person and has only one arm.

Mr. Kaplin insists that he was only standing nearby and attempting to photograph demonstrators with his cell phone when plainclothes police grabbed him.

"The judge read out the charges, the police affirmed that I was applauding, and the fine was levied," Kaplin says.

There was no examination of evidence at all, he adds.

"The judge looked ashamed of herself, and I sympathize with her. She was probably under orders. But this is a huge sum for me to pay, more than twice my monthly pension, and I'm having to ask all my family and friends to help me raise it," he says.

Absurdity amid the crackdown

Svetlana Kalinkina, editor of the independent Minsk newspaper Narodnaya Volya, says there have been similar cases amid the masses of detainees being rapidly processed through Belarussian courts.

"There was one case where deaf and mute person was accused of shouting antigovernmental slogans," she says. "Last week there was yet another case when a teacher was arrested while he was riding a bike and was accused of waving his arms and shouting something in a kind of protest."

"Miracles happen in our courts," she adds.

Human rights monitors express dismay over the increasing ferocity of the police response to the protests, which have been mostly peaceful and apparently legal under Belarus's constitution.

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