Belarusian authorities have convicted more than 400 people so far for taking part in opposition demonstrations, according to prosecutors. But if that number seems small to you, you are not alone.
Thousands of people have been arrested by security forces since the disputed election in August 2020, which sparked a mass protest movement against President Alexander Lukashenko.
The president claimed to have won a sixth term in office by a landslide, but opposition leaders, swathes of the public, foreign governments, and NGOs all dispute the result.
Belarus’ General Prosecution Office said on Wednesday that more than 600 people have been charged for participating in “mass riots”.
“To date, prosecutors have sent 468 criminal cases to courts against 631 persons who are associated with participation in illegal mass events and actions that grossly violate public order,” the office said in a statement.
“More than 400 people have already been sentenced.”
That number however represents just a small portion of the total number of arrests that have been made since the election.
“We have 290 political prisoners, and the majority of them have not been tried yet, they just have been kept as hostages for the regime,” says Hanna Liubakova, a Belarusian journalist and non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank.
“Then we have more than 2,000 criminal cases that were launched by the interior ministry. We also do not know how many people are suspects in these criminal cases.”
Prosecutors say demonstrators have been arrested for threats of violence against the authorities, desecration of state property, and hooliganism, as well as violating public order.
While prosecutors warn “not a single guilty person will escape responsibility,” Liubakova tells Euronews those being kept in prison apparently without trial are being mistreated “both physically and emotionally”.
“Firstly they are totally isolated from correspondence, from letters, from information, and that makes them feel abandoned, and as if nobody cares.”
She highlights accusations that at least 1,000 people were tortured and ill-treated by police whilst in custody in prison.
Both women and men have faced sexual abuse, they have been kept in stress positions for hours, held in overcrowded cells, and denied basic sanitary conditions, she adds.
According to human rights activists, the harshest sentence handed down so far has been 10 years in prison.
Liubakova says “there is no way to seek justice”, and that the prisoners are currently at the mercy of the regime.
But while the mass gatherings in major city squares have died down for now, she insists the protests are continuing in a different format.
“There is definitely mobilisation, there is understanding that people will not give up and the majority wants change.
“They are not on the streets in such massive numbers as they were before because they are scared because of these suppressions and they don’t have any ability to gather because they are immediately dispersed.
“So they changed the format and they found a safer way for them to protest by gathering in their local neighborhoods because it’s safer, they can disperse easier and they can hide in their apartments.”
Faced with constant demonstrations by tens of thousands of people, Belarus’ government gradually muzzled the protest by imprisoning opponents or forcing them into exile.
Opposition figure Sviatlana Tikhanouskaya, currently residing in Lithuania, has called for further demonstrations on 25 March, the day Belarus celebrates its declaration of independence in 1918.
The crackdown in Belarus has been condemned by Western countries, with the EU and the US imposing sanctions on individuals close to President Lukashenko.