The Office’s second report on the situation of human rights in Belarus in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election and in its aftermath makes further findings of systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations committed in Belarus.
The report draws on the detailed analysis of 207 interviews conducted in 2022 with victims and witnesses, as well as other stakeholders. Our Office collected, preserved and analysed over 2500 items of information and evidence, according to our established methodology.
We found the unlawful deaths of at least five persons in the context of the 2020 protests. Consistent with our previous findings of widespread, unnecessary and disproportionate use of force, we further assessed that crowd control equipment and weapons were unnecessarily used to forcibly disperse protests in Minsk, at least until November of 2020. Credible reports were also received of the use of unnecessary force against anti-war protestors at the time of the constitutional referendum in February of last year.
The Office also documented continuing widespread and systematic practices of torture and ill-treatment directed against individuals for their real or perceived opposition either to the Government or to the officially declared election results. These violations were generally committed after arrest in police vehicles, in police stations or in detention centres. In the majority of cases, detainees were not provided with necessary medical assistance.
OHCHR documented over 100 cases of sexual and gender-based violence (involving at least 4 boys, 36 women and 60 men) and reviewed over 180 additional credibly documented cases. The report recounts cases of rape, attempted rape and threats of rape, strip searches, cavity searches and forced nudity. Sexual and gender-based violence was also often directed by men towards men.
Over the past two and a half years, authorities in Belarus have arbitrarily arrested and detained tens of thousands of people, many of whom for taking part peacefully in demonstrations related to the 2020 presidential elections. On 27 and 28 February of last year, about 1,500 persons were also arbitrarily detained for taking part peacefully in demonstrations relating to the 2022 constitutional referendum and the armed attack on Ukraine. They were later prosecuted on charges of ‘violating the procedure for organizing or holding mass events.’
The report further documents numerous and systematic violations of the rights to due process and a fair trial in both administrative and criminal proceedings. Lawyers continue to be subjected to unfair disciplinary proceedings, disbarment, and in some cases arrest, detention and prosecution, merely for performing their professional functions. OHCHR continues to document severe and disproportionate sentences handed down by the courts against opposition figures, bloggers, journalists, human rights defenders, trade unionists and lawyers. In 2023, such sentences include those handed down following separate trials of opposition leaders Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Pavel Latushko, four Viasna human rights defenders including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski, numerous independent trade unions, including the acting Chairperson of the Belarusian Radio and Electronics Workers’ Union, Vasil Berasnieu, and the journalist and prominent member of the Polish community in Belarus Andrzej Poczobut, sentences which OHCHR has grounds to believe are politically motivated.
The authorities intensified their massive crackdown on members of civil society, the media and political opposition for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. As of 21 March 2023 this year, no fewer than 1,459 persons were arbitrarily detained on what OHCHR has reasonable grounds again to believe to be politically motivated charges. At least 2,416 individuals were convicted under so-called “extremism” charges as of February of this year, including “grossly violating public order”, “insulting the President” and “incitement to social discord”. Most independent Belarusian media outlets have been declared “extremist” by the authorities, along with, recently, the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ). During the reporting period and by February 2023, the number of liquidated NGOs reached 797 with 432 organizations closed down to avoid criminal prosecution. In December of last year, the ILO Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations called on Belarus to abandon its policy of destroying the independent trade union movement and silencing the free voices of workers.
At least 100,000 persons have left Belarus since May of 2020, due to fear and repression. Of grave concern for our Office are recent legislative amendments enabling the termination of citizenship of a person convicted of “participation in extremist activities or causing serious harm to the interests of the Republic of Belarus”, which includes calling for sanctions, insulting the President, participating in mass riots or causing damage to public property. The notion of “extremism” is defined too broadly in national legislation, while it appears, as noted above, that there were many criminal cases in 2022 by the Prosecutor General’s Office based on allegations of “extremism”. These amendments, which provide broad license for abusive repression and open the door to statelessness, should be revoked.
Also, in July 2022, the Criminal Procedure Code was amended to allow trials in absentia, enabling the targeting of political activists abroad. The scope of the death penalty was also extended in 2022, to include broadly defined acts of terrorism, encompassing acts that do not qualify under international standards as constituting most serious crimes. Moreover, a Bill was signed into law on 9 March of this year, extending the death penalty even further, to “treason against the State”.
The report comprehensively documents that the authorities failed to investigate complaints of human rights violations. Instead, they initiated criminal investigations against and prosecuted many of those who filed complaints, underlining the absence of domestic accountability. The withdrawal of Belarus from the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which took effect on 8 February of this year, represents a further setback for effective human rights protection in the country, as it terminates a key international avenue which had for decades been available to the people of Belarus.
Some of the human rights violations documented may further amount to crimes against humanity, taking into account their intentionally directed, widespread and systematic nature against the civilian population defined by its real or apparent opposition to the Government and its claim to electoral legitimacy. As recommended in the report, I again urge the Government of Belarus to immediately release all prisoners sentenced on politically motivated grounds, as well as other arbitrarily detained persons, and cease all other ongoing human rights violations, including the systematic repression of civil society, independent media, opposition groups and trade unionists.
Prompt, effective, transparent and independent investigations must be launched into all past human rights violations, with provision of adequate remedies, including due accountability for perpetrators. Given the current circumstances of limited accountability prospects in Belarus, other Member States should also consider working towards accountability through national proceedings, based on accepted principles of extraterritorial and universal jurisdiction, consistent with international due process and fair trial standards.
Our Office deeply regrets the persistent lack of cooperation by the Belarusian authorities. The Office acknowledges with profound appreciation the victims, survivors, and witnesses of human rights violations who have shared their own experiences and other relevant information. The Office extends its gratitude to Member States, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, the three experts, and all other organizations for the expert views and material shared, as well as the support provided to the Office and to the experts.