Belarus on Friday shut down dozens of rights groups and charities as the regime pursues a scorched earth policy against civil society groups.
Alexander Lukashenko, the longtime president of Belarus, has taken a hardline stance against any opposition after hundreds of thousands took to the streets last summer protesting presidential election results that were widely seen as rigged.
Authorities announced that they had withdrawn licences for over two dozen non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which have been helping refugees, promoting the rights of disabled people and standing up for media freedom and the environment.
The list of political prisoners in Belarus, compiled by the well-respected rights group Viasna, grew to 587 people earlier this week as four of Viasna’s leading campaigners including Ales Bialiatski were arrested.
“We have never seen anything like this in the history of Belarus since its independence,” Barys Haretski, deputy chairman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), told the Telegraph by phone from Ukraine, where he fled earlier this week.
Mr Haretski, whose office was raided in February, said he had been living in fear for months, getting up in the early hours to be ready for a police raid.
He said the BAJ will continue to operate out of Ukraine for the time being to help Belarusian journalists who face prosecution.
Mr Lukashenko announced the campaign against NGOs in a speech earlier this week, accusing the West of using charities to brainwash Belarusians and undermine his rule.
“For a small country like ours we have got nearly 2,000 NGOs, crooks and foreign agents,” he said.
“We have looked around: the damage they caused to the state! We’re now cleaning it up."
One of the targeted NGOs is Imena, a charity which has been crowdfunding treatment for rare diseases, supporting victims of domestic violence and orphans.
“People are shocked and panicked. No one knows what’s going to happen next,” said Katerina Sinyuk, founder of Imena.
Responding to Mr Lukashenko’s claims that NGOs were funded by the West, she said her group mostly used donations from Belarusians. Their bank accounts were frozen last week.
The Lukashenko regime was put in the international spotlight in May when Belarus forced a Ryanair flight to land in Minsk, citing a fake bomb threat. A prominent critic and his girlfriend who were on the plane were promptly arrested.
The European Union has since introduced the most sweeping package of sanctions to date against the regime, targeting some of the country’s key exports.