Belarus is an authoritarian state. During 2018 there were reports of violation of human rights, enforcement of laws to control and censor the public and the media, states the yearly country report on Belarus from U.S. Department of State.
The report, presented by Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, says that the constitution provides for a directly elected president who is head of state, and a bicameral parliament, the National Assembly.
“A prime minister appointed by the president is the nominal head of government, but power is concentrated in the presidency, both in fact and in law,” the document reads.
The report underlines that since his election as president in 1994, Alexander Lukashenko has consolidated his rule over all institutions and undermined the rule of law through authoritarian means, including manipulated elections and arbitrary decrees.
All subsequent presidential elections fell well short of international standards.
Human rights issues included, among other things, torture; arbitrary arrest and detention; undue restrictions on free expression, the press and the internet; violence against and detention of journalists; severe restrictions on freedoms of assembly and association; restrictions on political participation; corruption in all branches of government; allegations of pressuring women to have abortions; and trafficking in persons.
“Authorities at all levels … failed to take steps to prosecute or punish officials in the government or security forces who committed human rights abuses,” the report of U.S. Department of State points out.
Lack of prosecutorial independence makes legal requirements meaningless
The report lists a number of loud lawsuits and cases in Belarus in 2017-2018.
For example, the document mentions pressure on students, writers, and academics to join ostensibly voluntary pro-government organizations, such as the Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRYU) and the Union of Writers of Belarus; forced early voting of students in local elections; the investigation of the suicide of the conscript Aliaksandr Korzhych, the BelTA case.
“Observers said the investigation and charges were disproportionate to the alleged crime because the subscription-only BelTA news service the journalists were accused of illegally accessing posted the same information for free public consumption shortly after its release to paid subscribers,” claims the report.
Officials in U.S. Department of State point out that law enforcers in Belarus use unlawful means during an investigation. For instance, the law allows to use wiretaps. Wiretappings require the permission of a prosecutor, but the lack of prosecutorial independence rendered this requirement meaningless.
“Authorities routinely monitored residences, telephones, and computers. Nearly all opposition political figures and many prominent members of civil society groups claimed that authorities monitored their conversations and activities.
The government continued to collect and obtain personally identifiable information on independent journalists and democratic activists during raids and by confiscating computer equipment,” reads the report.
State media practice of reporting on high-profile cases as if guilt were already certain
The law provides for the presumption of innocence. But it doesn’t always work in fact.
“The lack of judicial independence, state media practice of reporting on high-profile cases as if guilt were already certain, and widespread limits on defense rights frequently placed the burden of proving innocence on the defendant,” U.S. Department of State claims.
The law also provides for public trials, but authorities occasionally held closed trials in judges’ chambers. Courts often allowed statements obtained by force and threats of bodily harm during interrogations to be used against defendants.
“Defendants have the right to appeal convictions, and most defendants did so. Nevertheless, appeals courts upheld the verdicts of the lower courts in the vast majority of cases,” says the report.
The document also mentions laws on mass media and on mass events that, according to U.S. Department of State, violate freedom of speech and assembly.