Belarus protests: Hundreds arrested after defying ban

media captionThe BBC filmed the beatings as protesters were arrested

Police in Belarus have arrested hundreds of people during protests against a so-called "social parasites" tax on the under-employed.

Thousands defied a ban to protest, taking to the streets of Minsk and other cities. Demonstrators shouted "Fascists!" at riot police.

There have been weeks of sporadic protests against a $230 (£185) levy on those unemployed for six months.

President Alexander Lukashenko insists the tax will not be scrapped.

He says it instils discipline in the workshy, though he has suspended it for this year.

Opponents say it punishes those who cannot find a job.

image copyrightAP
image captionPresident Lukashenko has run Belarus since 1994

'Beating the participants'

Organisers called the protest Freedom Day, evoking the independent Belarus that lasted just six months after the First World War, in 1918.

The march in the capital Minsk took place on the 99th anniversary of the proclamation of the Belarusian People's Republic.

Demonstrators tried to march down one of the major streets in Minsk, but were blocked by police who began arresting them, along with journalists covering the protest.

image copyrightEPA

"They're beating the participants, dragging women by the hair to buses. I was able to run to a nearby courtyard," demonstrator Alexander Ponomarev told AP news agency.

Earlier, police raided the offices of human rights group Vesna and detained about 30 activists. The authorities had already jailed more than 100 opposition supporters for terms of between three and 15 days in the lead-up to the demonstration, reports said.

At the scene, by Sergey Kozlovsky, BBC Russian Service, Minsk

It seemed like the whole city was in a state of emergency - police everywhere, a lot of police trucks, water cannons, cars with equipment for storming barricades.

We heard that people who were unable to get to the first meeting place, the Science Academy metro station, gathered in another place - Yakub Kolas square. There we saw a crowd with white-red-white flags, which are a symbol of opposition in Belarus. The crowd was around 1,000-1,500 strong.

We started filming there. People shouted "long live Belarus". Very soon riot police appeared. In a couple of minutes police blocked the whole street from both sides. Protesters were surrounded.

Several police trucks were sent in and arrests started. Riot police started to detain literally everyone, even some journalists and old people were detained. Those who were trying to resist were beaten.

Earlier this month Mr Lukashenko said people who worked fewer than 183 days a year would not have to pay the tax this year and said those who had already paid it last year would be compensated if they found a job.

According to a recent tax inspection, 470,000 people should have paid the tax but only 50,000 had done so, Reuters news agency said.

image copyrightEPA
image captionProtesters and journalists covering the demonstration in Minsk were arrested
image copyrightAP
image captionPolice were out in force on the streets of Minsk
image copyrightReuters
image captionThis was one of the largest protests in Belarus for several years

Mr Lukashenko has run Belarus - a country where little dissent is tolerated - since 1994.

He has been described by some Western officials as "Europe's last dictator".

However, Mr Lukashenko has recently been seeking to improve ties with the West and lessen the country's dependence on Russia.

More on this story