MOSCOW — The sound of one hand clapping may be one of those proverbial mysteries, but a man was arrested and seriously punished in Minsk this week for allegedly doing it.
It's a little whiff of absurdity amid a wave of unrelentingly grim news from Belarus, where "Europe's last dictator" Alexander Lukashenko is digging in against growing public protests over a collapsing economy that's gutted living standards and left hundreds of thousands out of work since January in the little post-Soviet country of 10 million.
In order to evade tough regulations on public rallies, protesters eschew placards and shouted slogans, and merely clap their hands to display their anger at Mr. Lukashenko's policies. Since the weekly flash mob protests began last month, more than 1,700 people have been arrested – 400 this week alone. Most of them were fined heavily or jailed for up to 15 days on police court testimony that they were expressing a political opinion by clapping their hands in public.
But Konstantin Kaplin, an unemployed man from the western town of Grodno, says he was convicted this week of applauding in public and fined the equivalent of $200, despite overwhelming evidence of his innocence: He is officially registered as a disabled person and has only one arm.
Mr. Kaplin insists that he was only standing nearby and attempting to photograph demonstrators with his cell phone when plainclothes police grabbed him.
"The judge read out the charges, the police affirmed that I was applauding, and the fine was levied," Kaplin says.
There was no examination of evidence at all, he adds.
"The judge looked ashamed of herself, and I sympathize with her. She was probably under orders. But this is a huge sum for me to pay, more than twice my monthly pension, and I'm having to ask all my family and friends to help me raise it," he says.
Absurdity amid crackdown
Svetlana Kalinkina, editor of the independent Minsk newspaper Narodnaya Volya, says there have been similar cases amid the masses of detainees being rapidly processed through Belarussian courts.
"There was one case where deaf and mute person was accused of shouting antigovernmental slogans," she says. "Last week there was yet another case when a teacher was arrested while he was riding a bike and was accused of waving his arms and shouting something in a kind of protest."
"Miracles happen in our courts," she adds.
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Human rights monitors express dismay over the increasing ferocity of the police response to the protests, which have been mostly peaceful and apparently legal under Belarus's constitution.
"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.
"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."
© 2012 Christian Science Monitor