Belarus: Unprecedented Crackdown
Belarusian authorities unleashed a widespread, brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters and their supporters in the wake of the August 9, 2020 presidential election, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021.
An unprecedented wave of mass, largely peaceful protests swept Belarus after authorities claimed that Aliaksandr Lukashenka, president since 1994, had been reelected despite a vote marred by widespread fraud. Belarusian security forces arbitrarily detained thousands of people and subjected hundreds to torture and other ill-treatment in an attempt to stifle the protests. In the lead up to and aftermath of the vote, the authorities jailed dozens of journalists, political opposition figures, presidential candidates, civic activists, and human rights defenders.
“In the past year, the Belarusian government shattered its own horrendous record for brutality and repression,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It has spared no effort to shut down dissent in nearly every layer of society.”
In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort.
Security officials and police violently dispersed protests from August 9 through 12 in Minsk and other large cities, using excessive force and rubber bullets, stun grenades, tear gas, and blank ammunition. Riot police detained almost 7,000 protesters and bystanders in four days, holding them in inhuman and degrading conditions, and torturing and otherwise ill-treating hundreds. At least three protesters died in August as a result of police actions.
Former detainees described beatings, prolonged stress positions, electric shocks, and in at least one case, rape. Some had serious injuries. Police held detained protesters for days in overcrowded cells, often denying them food, water, medical assistance, and access to the toilet.
Despite this intimidation, tens of thousands continued to demonstrate peacefully for fair elections and justice for abuses. By mid-November, police had detained more than 25,000 people, including more than 1,000 in an early November weekend alone. In November, a group of masked assailants in Minsk whom a Belarusian human rights group alleged to be affiliated with the authorities, viciously beat a peaceful protester, who died from his injuries.
Although the authorities opened several preliminary inquiries into abuses against protesters, they have not opened any criminal cases.
The authorities opened hundreds of politically motivated criminal cases against political opposition figures, protesters, and their supporters, civic activists, and human rights defenders. At least 121 are behind bars awaiting trial, according to Belarusian human rights group Viasna. In many cases police detained, beat, fined, or deported journalists who covered the protests and stripped them of accreditation. In early August, the authorities temporarily blocked dozens of websites and severely restricted internet access for days.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists documented 336 detentions and 60 incidents of violence against journalists in the months after the presidential vote.
The authorities threatened parents with fines and temporary loss of custody if their children participated in protests, threatened students with expulsion, and warned that they were considering using live ammunition against protesters.
The European Union did not recognize the purported election outcome, calling the election unfree and unfair, and imposed sanctions on Belarusian officials involved in the post-election crackdown, as did the United States and the United Kingdom. They condemned the violence, detentions, and internet shutdowns.
In November, an expert report based on an investigation facilitated by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe found “massive and systemic” human rights violations before and in the aftermath of the presidential election. The report called on Belarus to hold new elections, free all prisoners held for political reasons, and bring to justice those responsible for torture and other abuses.
In September, the United Nations Human Rights Council held an urgent debate on Belarus and adopted a resolution that requests the UN high commissioner for human rights to closely monitor the situation in Belarus and provide updates.