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Belarus: Discriminatory detention conditions and abusive treatment violated women inmates’ rights, UN committee finds

07 March 2024

GENEVA (7 March 2024) – The constant surveillance of two women inmates through video cameras installed in their prison cells and under the watch of male guards was abusive treatment, violating their privacy, dignity and rights, the UN women's rights committee has found.

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) published a Decision today after reviewing a joint complaint filed by two Belarusian nationals who were detained in the central detention facility of the Main Internal Affairs Directorate of the Minsk City Executive Committee and the temporary detention facility of the Internal Affairs Department of the Zhodzina City Executive Committee.

The two complainants were 29 and 33 years old when sentenced to 12 to 14 days of administrative detention in the two facilities in 2017 after participating in mass assemblies separately.

They claimed that the conditions in the central detention facility in Minsk were humiliating and discriminatory for women. They were forced to expose their bodies in their detention cells, each of which had two video cameras mounted in the ceiling so that prison guards, exclusively male, could monitor them around the clock even when they were changing clothes, washing themselves, or using the toilet. Male penitentiary officers could also watch through peepholes in the cell doors, including when the two complainants were undressed.

They were later transferred to the temporary detention centre in the city of Zhodzina, where conditions were equally deplorable, as they were deprived of basic hygiene and supplies, such as soap or toilet paper. One of them was even ordered to undress and perform sit-ups while she was on a hunger strike. The sanitary facilities in the cells had no walls or screens, and thus, women inmates had no privacy, notably from male officers.

Following their release, they filed several separate complaints to local courts concerning detention conditions and regarding gender discrimination in the facilities. Their complaints, however, were all dismissed by the courts. They then brought their case to the Committee.

The Committee noted that the two victims were detained in poor, unhygienic and degrading conditions at both detention facilities. “Their specific needs as women, including physiological and medical needs, were not taken into account and amounted to discrimination on the grounds of gender,” said Committee member Elgun Safarov.

“The lack of a specified area, building or cell designated to adequately accommodate female detainees, and the State party’s failure to ensure the protection of their dignity, privacy and physical and psychological safety in the facilities constituted violations by Belarus of its obligations under the Convention,” Safarov added.

The Committee recalled that, in accordance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and Rule 81 of the Nelson Mandela Rules, women prisoners shall be attended and supervised by women officers. It further emphasized that detaining women in facilities that do not address their specific needs constitutes discrimination.

“Prison staff must respect women prisoners’ privacy, dignity and health care needs. The Committee considers that the abusive treatment by male prison staff, including unjustified interference with their privacy amounts to discrimination,” Safarov stated.

The Committee called upon Belarus to provide full reparation, including adequate compensation, to the two victims, as well as access to appropriate medical care to address the negative impact on physical and mental health.

For more information and media requests in Geneva, please contact:
Vivian Kwok at [email protected] 
UN Human Rights Office Media Section at [email protected]

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women monitors States parties’ adherence to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which to date has 189 States parties. The Committee is made up of 23 members who are independent human rights experts in women’s rights drawn from around the world, who serve in their personal capacity and not as representatives of States parties. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women allows the Committee to receive and examine complaints by individuals or groups of individuals under the jurisdiction of a State party to the Optional Protocol, claiming to be victims of a violation of any of the rights set forth in the Convention. To date, 115 States have ratified or acceded to the Optional Protocol.

The Committee’s views and decisions on individual communications are an independent assessment of States’ compliance with their human rights obligations under the Convention.