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.
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"Police have clearly been ordered to react to people clapping on the street, yet there is nothing in Belarussian legislation to authorize this," says Yulia Gorbunova, a Belarus observer with New York-based Human Rights Watch.Skip to next paragraph
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"The situation is deteriorating badly in Belarus, and the latest developments are very disturbing. Rallies have been brutally dispersed, and many people arrested, for gathering peacefully as they are legally entitled to do," she says. "All signs suggest it's going to get worse."
The crackdown on Lukashenko opponents has been underway since December, when the president, who has run Belarus for 17 years, won reelection with a massive 80 percent majority in polls critics allege were rigged.
Economic woes spurs more protest
But as the economy founders and a more than 60 percent devaluation of the ruble takes a toll on living standards, the number of Lukashenko opponents taking to the streets is larger and includes a much wider spectrum of people than ever before.
International criticism of the crackdown is also growing. In a briefing Thursday US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland urged Belarussian authorities to release hundreds of prisoners, who include several presidential candidates and other leading opposition politicians.
"Hundreds of protesters, including more than 20 journalists covering the protests, were detained during the last demonstration on July 6," she said. "We urge the government of Belarus to release those detained, to respect the rights, including freedom of assembly, of the people of Belarus. We continue to call for the immediate, unconditional release of all political prisoners in Belarus."
Lukashenko responded by publicly offering to put the prisoners on a train and send them to "any European country that will take them."
"If the European Union wants to take them, we can send them right away, no problem. They can have them if they care so much for political prisoners," the official Belarussian Telegraph Agency quoted Lukashenko as saying.
But he rebuffed Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski’s suggestion that he free all prisoners and then enter into consultations with European leaders on how to overcome the economic crisis.
"We are smart people and therefore don’t need these consultations. We have no intention to bargain with the EU with regard to prisoners," the agency quoted him as saying.
A few in Belarus's beleaguered opposition see some hope in Lukashenko's rhetoric.
"At least it shows that he's thinking about some way out of this situation. Strange things are happening here in Belarus," says Ms. Kalinkina. "Lukashenko finds himself in a blind alley, and he's fantasizing about how to get rid of all the people who disagree with him. But maybe it shows that he's looking for some pretext to finally let them out."