The recent high school graduate carefully selected her wardrobe as she headed off to a summer folk festival.

She was dressed in all white, as is customary for the event, and wore a large crown of flowers in her golden hair. But when it came to choosing a sash for her skirt, she grabbed a brown leather ribbon, avoiding the color red.

In Belarus, red and white are the colors of the protest movement against the authoritarian leader of the country, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko. And even the smallest sign of protest can land a person in jail. “I’m worried about attracting the wrong attention from the authorities,” said the young woman, who spoke on the condition that her name not be used so she wouldn’t be monitored.

After three years of claiming victory in a widely contested presidential election — and violently crushing the angry protests that followed — Mr. Lukashenko ushered in a frightening era of repression.

He is growing ever closer to his patron, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, positioning himself as an invaluable military ally of Russia in its war against Ukraine, but also cracking down on dissent in a way that is invisible to much of the world but rivals that of Mr. Putin’s punitive regime.

Belarusian security forces are rounding up opposition figures, journalists, lawyers and even people who commit offenses such as commenting on memes on social media or insulting Mr Lukashenko in private conversations with acquaintances who are heard and reported.

In particular, activists and right-wing groups say, the country’s security forces intend to find and punish people who took part in the protests of 2020. Belarusians are arrested because they wear red and white, have a tattoo of a raised fist — also a symbol of the protest movement — or because they are only seen in three-year-old photos of the anti-government demonstrations.

“In the last three years, we have gone from soft autocracy to neo-totalitarianism,” said Igor Ilyash, a journalist who opposes Mr. Lukashenko’s rule. “They criminalize the past.”

Belarusians interviewed by The New York Times over three days this month echoed that sentiment, expressing fear that even a minor perceived infraction in relation to the revolution could bring prison time.

The crackdown has made people much more cautious about openly showing their anger at the government, Mr. Ilyash said. This, in turn, encouraged the authorities to focus on participation in old protests in an attempt to intimidate and stifle dissent.

Scrutiny of Mr. Lukashenko’s repressive rule has increased since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, and especially in recent months.

Belarus let the Kremlin invade Ukraine from its territory last year. In March, Russia announced that it would station tactical nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory. Video evidence suggests that Belarus is now housing forces from the Russian militia group Wagner, and on Thursday, the government said Wagner forces were training Belarusian special operations units just a few miles from the border with Poland.

The security purge thinned the ranks of lawyers: there were more than 500 stripped of their law licenses or left the profession or the country.

And Belarus has become particularly dangerous for journalists. Now there are 36 in prison, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, following the arrest Monday of Ihar Karnei, 55. He wrote for the US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which Belarus has banned as an “extremist” organization. People can be sentenced to up to seven years in prison for just sharing its content.

According to Viasna, a human rights group that shared the Nobel Peace Prize last year, security forces raided Mr. Karnei’s home and seized his electronic devices. He is in Belarus’ notorious Okrestina detention center, the group said, and neither his family nor his lawyers have had access to him.

Belarus has criminalized most independent news outlets and the journalists’ association as “extremist,” which makes following them on social media a crime.

The wife of Mr. Ilyash, the award-winning journalist Katsiaryna Andreyevawas sentenced to eight years in prison in two separate cases and now works in a penal colony as a seamstress, earning less than $4 a month, her husband said.

In the prison, she is forced to wear a yellow badge on her chest identifying her as a political prisoner. When she is released in 2028, if the same government is still in power, she will still be considered an “extremist” and barred from certain activities, including journalism.

Mr. Ilyash himself spent 25 days in prison, and with one criminal case against him still open, he is prohibited from leaving the country. He does not leave his apartment without a small backpack, which contains the essentials for prison in case he is arrested: toothbrush, toothpaste, spare underwear and socks.

Activists and opposition figures are also targeted. This month, the artist Ales Pushkin died in a penal colony at the age of 57. He is believed to be the third political prisoner to die in Belarusian custody since the protests began in 2020.

Several of the country’s best-known political prisoners, such as leading opposition figure Maria Kolesnikova, were neither seen by their family members or lawyers, nor allowed to write letters, meaning they were. untouched for months.

Viasna, the rights group, has identified nearly 1,500 political prisoners in Belarus today, and another 1,900 people convicted in what the group calls “politically motivated criminal cases.”

“The security services are still watching videos of people, and scouring social networks and photos of the protests after all these years,” said Evgeniia Babayeva, a Viasna staff member who is cataloging. politically motivated arrests in Belarus from exile in Lithuania.

Ms. Babayeva was arrested in July 2021, on the same day as the group’s founder, Ales Bialiatski, along with a handful of other colleagues. She was released only because she signed an agreement to cooperate with the security services, but she said she fled Belarus the same day.

In March, Mr. Bialiatski was sentenced to 10 years in prison for “cash smuggling” and “financing actions and groups that grossly violated public order,” charges widely viewed by watchdog groups as false and intended to discredit the organization.

On the surface, visitors to the nation’s capital should watch closely for any signs that the 2020 protests have happened at all. Minsk, which prides itself on its cleanliness, is tidy, with a modern city centre. Billboards trumpet 2023 as the “year of peace and creation,” and the roadside public gardens are maintained in national Belarusian motifs.

But residents say a more sinister sensibility hangs over the city and the country. Cameras with facial recognition guard public spaces and residential elevators, keeping tabs on ordinary Belarusians going about their daily activities.

One evening in June, a mine resident was walking when she was approached by the police, who reprimanded her for a simple administrative violation, less serious than jaywalking.

The officer searched her name in the police database, showing evidence of a previous arrest for participation in the 2020 protests. Police officers soon drew up an allegation that she cursed at her station – which she denies – and she was placed in the Okrestina detention center for 10 days on a “hooliganism” charge.

She shared a small cell with 12 other women, she said. There were no mattresses or pillows, and the light was on 24 hours a day. Even though everyone got sick – she contracted a bad case of Covid – they had to share toothbrushes. There were no showers, and if a woman got her period, she got cotton balls rather than pads or tampons.

(The woman’s name and her offense are being withheld at her request because the information could identify her and draw revenge. Her identity was confirmed by The Times, and friends confirmed that she had given similar reports to them.)

The oppressive environment suffocates people and encourages many to leave. The high school student who went to the summer solstice party and Belarusian poet Yan Kupala said she attended because of a lack of public events since 2020.

“There is nowhere for us to go anymore,” she said, complaining that control was so tight that even traditional songs were approved in advance by the authorities. She said most good musicians were called “extremists” and left the country.

The girl said she plans to follow them, hoping to continue her studies in Cyprus or Austria. At least half of her classmates have already left Belarus.

Another festival-goer, Vadim, 37, said he had the impression that at least half of his friends had spent time in prison for their political views.

He said that his wife had already emigrated, and he was considering joining her.

“The war was a trigger for many people to leave,” he said.

“Before, we thought this situation would finally end,” said Vadim, “but after the war started, we knew it would only get worse.”

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