18 February 2021
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you for inviting me to this important side-event. My remarks today will be brief and focus on three key points that I see as particularly pertinent prior to the session at which the HCHR will present her own report on the situation with human rights in Belarus.
For many years, the human rights situation in Belarus has been problematic and raised serious concerns. Yet, what happened in 2020 led to unprecedented human rights violations, both in terms of scope, intensity, and scale. Over thirty thousand people were detained just because they tried to exercise their legal right to freedom of assembly; thousands were allegedly tortured or otherwise subject to ill-treatment, psychological intimidation and threats; hundreds of activists, human rights defenders, journalists were persecuted or are now subjected to various forms of pressure from the authorities.
These human rights violations affected nearly all categories of society: men and women, pensioners and children, university professors and teachers, and their students and pupils, but also of course lawyers, medical staff, businessmen, artists, etc. Thus, and this is the first point I would like to emphasize: the human rights violations in Belarus have been massive and affect the whole spectrum of civil society actors and organizations.
In this context, I would like to remind that, since the beginning of May 2020 (that is, since the beginning of the current period of escalation of offenses in Belarus), the Human Rights Committee has registered 40 cases, and has more than 200 applications under consideration. As far as I know, this is the highest rate of appeals to the Committee for any country. Most of the complaints about Belarus to the Committee refer to violations falling under Articles 19 and 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - i.e. the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, respectively. The problem is not only the extent of human rights violations during mass detentions, the disproportionate use of force, beatings, torture, threats and intimidation – but also the atmosphere of impunity in which they occurred – and this is my second point.
From the facts and figures communicated to us, it is clear that the state machinery – the law enforcement bodies, the judiciary, the court system, the legislative framework – not only does not provide adequate protection for the enjoyment of human rights, but often is being used as a means for repression. The authorities have not communicated any statistics on the number of perpetrators who were brought to justice following the accusations of victims of police brutality or torture. Why? Because, from what we know, no court proceedings have been opened yet on any of these cases. Yesterday the General Prosecutor opened a criminal investigation into the death of Raman Bondarenka for “deliberate use of bodily harm leading to death”, pursuant of art. 147.3 of the Criminal Code, which carries with it a sentence of 5 to 15 years of imprisonment. Yet, in a press statement the Prosecutor’s office stated that the involvement of police officers in this case “had not been established”. This again proves that impunity is a systemic problem in Belarus, embedded deep inside the state machinery.
Thirdly and even though the human rights situation has changed from bad to worse in recent months, my concern is that it continues to deteriorate as we speak. As you must have noticed, the authorities have remained deaf to all our calls and recommendations. I haven’t seen any step made into the right direction, quite to the contrary: in recent weeks there has been a multiplication of evidence that the authorities seem to want to further tighten the screws, ahead of the spring when the protests will predictably resume, with even more determination.
Whereas, before, the authorities were punishing people for exercising their legitimate right to peaceful assembly by bringing administrative charges against them, now there are mostly criminal charges brought against participants in peaceful protests. According to various sources, almost 250 people in Belarus have been sentenced and jailed on politically-motivated charges. Let me remind that hundreds more are expecting trial. There is thus a clear trend towards criminalizing the activities of those who protect human rights. On 16 February 2021, the authorities reportedly conducted 90 simultaneous surprise searches, including early morning raids on the offices of Viasna Human Rights Center, the Belarusian Association of Journalists, and independent trade unions. Dozens of civil society activists were interrogated, and several had their homes searched. These raids took place in Minsk and other major cities of Belarus. The authorities justified their actions by aiming at “establishing the circumstances of the financing of protest activities” in the context of Article 342 of the Criminal Code of Belarus (“organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order”), which is now widely used for putting pressure on or otherwise intimidating opposition activists and media workers. This adds to the continuous judicial harassment of human rights lawyers and human rights defenders that intensified since the beginning of 2021: more and more people face criminal charges for allegedly organizing or financing illegal protests.
I think in particular about Leanid Sudalenka and his colleagues, who were helping gather funds for paying the fines of the arrested peaceful protesters. I think of Marfa Rabkova, in pre-trial custody for 5 months already, against whom new criminal charges have just been raised, including “involvement in a criminal organization”; her main activity as coordinator of volunteer services at Viasna was to document evidence of torture of detained participants in the post-election demonstrations. She now faces up to 12 years in prison. Other HRD organizations have been targeted, notably the Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – whose director Sergey Drazdousky was interrogated and placed under house arrest, alongside other human rights defenders.
Further, and whereas State presents the protesters as terrorists on a foreign payroll, accusing neighboring countries of training and manipulating them, or blaming them for hosting exiled politicians who are now accused of planning a coup d’état, what we see is independent journalists facing a new wave of harsh repression.
This morning, 18 February 2021, two Belsat journalists were condemned to 2 years in prison. They had been in custody since mid-November, when they were arrested for covering the popular gatherings on so-called Square of Changes, that were prompted by the announcement of the death of Raman Bondarenka. These young and brave women were only doing their job; since August it had become an increasingly dangerous one – plenty of independent journalists said they felt like working in a war zone. No journalist from independent media was accredited to follow their trial, and no colleague of theirs could enter the court room during the hearings – only state journalists were let in. This illustrates a trend which I see as very worrying, and which I am afraid will be my fourth point, at the next side-event on Belarus in July, if nothing is done to stop this trend: Belarus is in the process of isolating itself from the rest of the world.
I would like use this opportunity to strongly condemn these actions by the Belarusian authorities, which add to the overall atmosphere of fear in the country. Once again, I call upon the Belarussian authorities to put an immediate end to the policy of harassment and intimidation against civil society and media workers.
The three key concerns that I have highlighted – the unprecedented scale of human rights violations, the ultimate impunity in which they are being perpetrated, and the continuing deterioration of the human rights situation – all of these should compel the international community not only to continue its close scrutiny of the human rights situation in Belarus, but also to further consolidate its efforts to change the trends I just mentioned. The Belarusian people are eager to see these changes, and these efforts too.