- Associated Press - Thursday, June 23, 2011

MINSK, BELARUS (AP) - Belarusian authorities have detained more than 450 people for clapping their hands and stomping their feet in a series of anti-government protests organized through social media in the ex-Soviet nation, rights activists said Thursday.

Most of those detained were released a few hours after the Wednesday evening’s protest, but several dozen went on trial Thursday, said Valentin Stefanovich of the Vyasna rights center said. They face up to 15 days in jail on charges of hooliganism.

The protest in the capital, Minsk, and nearly 30 other Belarusian cities was the third such action in as many weeks. It drew several thousand, mostly young participants despite efforts by the Belarusian security agency to intimidate activists who helped organize the rally using the social media.

“The authorities staged a real hunt for dissenters on the Internet,” Stefanovich said.

Authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko is facing growing public discontent over the nation’s worst financial turmoil since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The country recently devalued the national currency, causing panic buying of goods and huge lines at currency exchange offices.

Lukashenko, who has ruled the 10-million nation for nearly 17 years, earning the nickname of “Europe’s last dictator” in the West, last week reprimanded his interior minister for failing to disperse the previous protests.

Police on Wednesday cordoned off streets in Minsk and shut down public transportation. Hundreds of people, however, gathered in small groups in the center of the city, some arriving on bicycles. Riot police quickly moved to disperse the protesters who did not shout any slogans or display any posters. Several journalists were also detained and held for several hours.

The Swedish Foreign Ministry on Thursday summoned the ambassador of Belarus to condemn the violence against demonstrators in the country after a Swedish embassy official was assaulted by security police while observing Wednesday’s gathering in Minsk.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said the violence is “yet another confirmation of the country’s lack of respect for basic democratic rights.”

The U.S. and the European Union have introduced additional sanctions against Belarus after Lukashenko unleashed a violent crackdown on opposition after December’s residential vote that was also criticized by international observers.