Detaining peaceful protesters is a clear violation of human rights, and Belarus must immediately and unconditionally drop all charges and free them, says PEN America.

More than 50 international and domestic journalists, human rights defenders, actors, and playwrights are among the hundreds reported detained during weekend protests in Minsk and several other cities in Belarus that saw authorities mount a show of military force and shut down the internet in the capital city.

Sentences were pronounced quickly for many of those arrested. Belarus Free Theatre, the noted drama group, saw a member of its creative team, Siarhai Kvachonok, sentenced to 10 days detention on charges of “hooliganism.” Yana Rusakevich, another BFT member, was located in a hospital with a concussion that she suffered in the course of her detention Sunday.

“All these arrests and splitting up the crowds might make things a little quieter in Minsk, but now these protests are happening all over Belarus,” said BFT Artistic Director Natalia Kaliada. “People don’t care, they want an end to this dictator. They say ‘basta’—enough.”

Also detained was the former president of PEN Belarus, poet Vladimir Neklyaev, who was arrested as he arrived by train to Minsk from Warsaw. He was hospitalized after falling sick while being questioned. Interviewed later at the hospital, he said he had been essentially “kidnapped,” and had received no formal documentation of the reasons for his detention.

“This is the biggest anti-regime protest in Belarus in years, and even those who have never participated in rallies such as this before were in the streets this past weekend,” said PEN America’s Free Expression Coordinator for Eurasia, Polina Kovaleva. “Instead of detaining and sentencing the protesters, the government of Belarus should respect the rights of its citizens to freedom of assembly and freedom of speech and immediately drop all the charges.”

The Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) reported that Aliaksandr Barazenka, a cameraman for Belsat, was detained close to Victory Square, together with a group of protesters. Although he said he identified himself as a journalist, police officers ignored him, and he was later given a 15-day sentence.

U.S. Senator John McCain released a statement on Sunday requesting the immediate and unconditional release of the hundreds of Belarusians who had been unjustly detained and arrested. “The Belarusian people deserve the freedom to chart their nation’s future, and it is time the government of Belarus responds to their legitimate demands,” McCain said.

The demonstrations started in February this year and were sparked by the implementation of the so-called “tax on parasites,’’ which imposed a fine on those without officially registered employment, a category that includes independent writers, artists, tutors, and others who do not work for state entities.