Amnesty International: Most Egregious Crackdown On Freedoms In Belarus’ History

Amnesty International human rights defenders have published a report on the human rights situation in the world in 2020. According to the report, the past year for Belarus “was characterized by recurrent peaceful protests, with the presidential election in August serving as a catalyst for the most egregious crackdown on freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association in Belarus’ post-independence history”.

AI points out that the peaceful protests that began in the country after the presidential elections were responded to by the authorities with an unprecedented level of violence and repression.

Freedom of expression

“The right to freedom of expression was severely curtailed in an attempt to curb all opposition and dissent,” reads the report.

Among the violations, AI names:

  • internet blackouts
  • tight government control. Independent journalists and media organizations were harassed and prevented from carrying out their legitimate work. Local monitors documented over 400 such instances, including arrests, torture and other ill-treatment of media workers, between May and October alone. International media outlets had their accreditation denied or revoked to prevent uncensored reporting. Domestic newspapers, such as Komsomolskaya Pravda in Belarus, faced refusals from state-controlled printing houses to print issues criticizing authorities. Major online news outlet TUT.by had its licence suspended by the authorities. Natallia Lyubneuskaya, a journalist working for the independent newspaper Nasha Niva, was one of at least three journalists shot at by police with rubber bullets.
  • Students, academics, athletes, religious and cultural figures and employees of state enterprises were expelled or sacked from their posts and many faced administrative and even criminal sanctions for speaking against the authorities, supporting peaceful protest, or taking part in strikes.
  • Women with dissenting views faced gendered reprisals and were targeted via their perceived vulnerabilities, including through threats of sexual violence or of their young children being placed in state care.

Freedom of assembly

“The right to freedom of assembly remained severely and unduly restricted. Penalties issued to peaceful protesters under administrative law were often heavier than sanctions applied for certain criminal offences,” human rights defenders note.

Amnesty International directly witnessed the unfounded, arbitrary, and brutal nature of a number of these arrests. The organisation pointed out in its report:

  • Hundreds of peaceful protesters, online activists, independent journalists and others were arbitrarily detained, including by men in plain clothes using unlawful force and unmarked vehicles, and dozens received fines or “administrative arrest”.
  • Police (often plain-clothed) used excessive and indiscriminate force, including rubber bullets fired at short-range into crowds, stun grenades, chemical irritants, water cannons, automatic firearms with blank cartridges, truncheons and other means to disperse peaceful crowds and apprehend individuals.
  • At least four people were killed by government forces and several others died under suspicious circumstances.
  • While many protesters and bystanders were attacked randomly and arbitrarily, others were targeted for their professional activity, including media workers documenting events or medics who voluntarily attended to the wounded. Others were singled out because of their sexual identity.

Freedom of association

“The authorities waged a campaign of brutal persecution against all forms of independent association intended to protect human rights and peaceful opposition to the regime, including monitoring initiatives, opposition campaigning teams and independent trade unions.”

  • opposition presidential candidates and their associates, including Sergei Tikhanovsky, Viktor Babariko, Maria Kolesnikova and many others, were arrested on falsified charges;
  • several people were forcibly expelled from the country, including Svetlana Tikhanovskaya; many were forced to leave, fearing persecution and after threats;
  • criminal cases were initiated against representatives of the Coordination Council, human rights defenders.

Torture and ill-treatment

“The authorities systematically used torture and other ill-treatment against people detained during protests, including participants, journalists and bystanders. Local and international groups documented hundreds of cases across the country,” the report says.

Amnesty International summarizes:

  • UN human rights experts received 450 testimonies of ill-treatment of detainees supported by photo, video and medical evidence, documenting a horrific litany of abuses.
  • They describe how protesters were tortured and ill-treated during arrest, transportation and detention in severely overcrowded facilities.
  • Protesters were deprived of access to food, clean water and medical care during lengthy periods of detention.
  • Detainees were also denied the right to inform their relatives of their whereabouts, in some instances for the entire period of “administrative arrest”, and denied access to their lawyers.
  • Parcels and letters were withheld, and warm clothes and hygiene products were confiscated including for menstruating women.

“The Belarusian authorities admitted receiving some 900 complaints of abuse by police in connection with the protests but by the end of the year not a single criminal investigation had been opened, nor had any law enforcement officer been charged with respective violations.”

The report notes that Belarus remains the sole country in Europe and the former Soviet Union to impose death sentences. At least four men were on death row at the end of the year, and at least three death sentences were handed down; two of which were to brothers aged 19 and 21. No executions were reported.

In a “health” section, the organization noted that the government’s initial response to the pandemic was inadequate.