Belarus today began hearing the cases of 50 people detained over the latest wave of protests against President Alexander Lukashenko, according to the Vyasna rights group, which monitors political repressions. Thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets of the ex-Soviet country to demand the resignation of Lukashenko, who has ruled with an iron grip since 1994. The unusually large protests in major cities were sparked by a controversial Soviet-style tax on "spongers" -- those not in regular work. Belarus has already sentenced 43 participants in earlier protests to stints in police cells, including four prominent opposition leaders. Plain-clothed police detained protestors after the rallies on public transport and outside their homes in the cities of Minsk, Mogilev and Grodno, Vyasna said. In court hearings set to continue today, protesters were charged with petty hooliganism, breaking rules on demonstrations and disobeying officials. Some activists were sentenced to 12 to 15 days in police cells and fines.
A total of 28 were sentenced to police custody in Minsk, where some 3,000 had marched. Two declared hunger strikes. "The authorities preferred the option of force, fearing a merging of the political protest that has always existed in Belarus with the growing social protest," Vyasna's director Ales Belyatsky told AFP.
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