Medical workers witnessing painful human toll of reprisals, paying high personal price
Belarusian health workers who participated in anti-government demonstrations or spoke out against official accounts of protesters’ deaths and injuries, are facing brutal reprisals from the authorities, Amnesty International said today in a new briefing. Despite chronic staff shortages, dozens of health workers have been dismissed amid the government’s crackdown on critics, with many barred from medical employment, while countless others have faced threats and prosecution.
“Belarusian health workers have been on the frontline of the country’s human rights crisis, treating protesters with injuries and exposing the government’s attempts to downplay the bloodshed. Many have paid a heavy price for their integrity, losing their livelihoods, and in some cases their human rights,” said Bruce Millar, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director of Campaigns for Eastern Europe and Central Asia Regional Office.
“One doctor was put on trial for contradicting the government’s account of a protesters’ death, while many medics who joined peaceful protests were forced to resign. The Belarusian authorities’ intolerance of peaceful dissent is eroding the health care system and the medical community, amid a global pandemic.”
Amnesty International tells the stories of four health workers, who described how mass dismissals and disbarments have contributed to a catastrophic situation in many medical facilities, especially in provincial areas. Many identifying details, such as last names of medical professionals, their cities of residence and even names of hospitals where they had worked, have been omitted in the briefing for security reasons.
Bruce Millar said:
“The government does not care about people’s right to health and other human rights. The authorities’ response to all peaceful dissent is violence and brutal reprisals. Doctors and nurses are among those who have paid an incredible human price for their professionalism and for showing human compassion.”
Many of those who faced reprisals are still trying to come to terms with the excessive use of force by the police they have witnessed over the past year.
Halina, a medical nurse and a longtime activist, described what she had seen in August 2020:
“I saw all these mutilated people – with broken bones, with faces ripped to pieces, with swollen heads the size of a balloon. We weren’t allowed to write down descriptions of injuries, and were constantly threatened with reprisals,” she told Amnesty International.
After joining the protests, “shoulder to shoulder with other doctors and nurses” Halina was briefly arrested in September 2020, and then told by the hospital administration to resign. She refused, and two days later, on the way home from work, she was met by two men in plain clothes who threatened to make her children disappear. Afraid for her family’s safety, Halina left her job and has been unable to find new employment.
“I was refused everywhere I went. Even when applying for the most basic jobs that nobody wanted. There must have been a red tick next to my name,” Halina said.
Prosecuted for speaking out
In November 2020, peaceful protester Raman Bandarenka died in hospital after being severely beaten in police custody. Officials claimed Bandarenka’s injuries resulted from a street fight and that he was drunk at the moment of death. But an anesthesiologist who treated him, Artsyom Sarokin, contradicted this account, and shared Bandarenka’s medical reports with journalist Katsyaryna Barysevich. Both were convicted of “disclosing medical secrets”; Sarokin was fined and given a suspended prison sentence, while Barysevich was fined and sentenced to six months in a penal colony.
“Alyaksandr Lukashenka's government is systematically destroying the most valuable institutions in Belarusian society – from cultural organizations and student unions to journalists and the medical community. We call on world leaders, the international community and health professionals across the world to not let go unnoticed, and speak up against, the escalating crackdown on human rights in Belarus,” said Bruce Millar.
The briefing is part of Amnesty International’s #StandWithBelarus global solidarity campaign that was launched on 27 January 2021, with the publication of a report revealing how the Belarusian authorities have used the justice system as a repressive tool to punish survivors of torture rather than suspected perpetrators.