Belarus in HRW's World report 2022: Mass peaceful protests wound down but repressions continue
Human Rights Watch has published World Report 2022, an annual review of the human rights situation in the world. Belarus chapter provides information about the governmental repressions against civil society in 2022.
In 2022, Belarusian authorities continued to purge independent voices, including through bogus prosecutions and harassment of human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, opposition politicians, and activists. At time of writing, at least 1,340 people were behind bars on politically motivated charges and not a single human rights organization could operate in Belarus legally.
As of February 24, the Belarusian government has been letting Russian forces use the country’s territory in Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Belarusian authorities prosecuted critics of the Russia-Ukraine war and brutally dispersed anti-war protests.
Authorities failed to conduct effective investigations into the widespread allegations of torture and other ill-treatment of peaceful protesters by law enforcement officers in August 2020 following the manipulated presidential vote.
Governmental Crackdown on Peaceful Protests and Dissent
According to the prominent Belarusian human rights organization Viasna, at least 3,458 people faced criminal prosecution in connection with the 2020 mass protests between November 2021 and October 2022, and more than 3,148 people faced administrative sanctions.
Authorities increasingly used charges of “dissemination of extremist materials” to prosecute people for sharing publications from independent news outlets and Telegram channels the government designated “extremist.”
On February 27, the Belarusian authorities held a referendum on constitutional amendments which, among other things, cancelled Belarus’s nuclear weapon free status and exempted former presidents from accountability for actions committed during their term in office. Human rights defenders deemed the referendum non-transparent and illegitimate.
On the day of the referendum, peaceful demonstrations took place across the country protesting Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine. Police detained hundreds of protesters and subjected them to beatings and other ill-treatment.
In the following months, police routinely detained people for anti-war placards and inscriptions. Authorities opened dozens of criminal cases for “aiding extremist activity” against people who shared photos and videos of Russian troops’ movement.
Human Rights Defenders, Civil Society Groups, and Lawyers
At time of writing, three members of Viasna, which had been particularly hard hit by the authorities, remained behind bars on bogus “smuggling” and “financing group actions that disrupted public order” charges, including its leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Ales Bialiatski, vice-chair Valentin Stefanovich, and lawyer Uladzimir Labkovich. Three other members of Viasna, namely, Maria (Marfa) Rabkova, Andrey Chapiuk, and Leanid Sudalenka were serving their sentences of 15, 6, and 3 years, respectively. Viasna reported inhumane prison conditions, including refusal of medical care and restrictions on correspondence.
In December, a court in Homiel designated Viasna’s website and social media pages as “extremist,” which led to their blocking. Authorities also blocked the websites of other civil society organizations, including another leading rights group Human Constanta, after either designating them “extremist” or finding them in violation of mass media laws.
In April, the prosecutor general announced the blocking of Human Rights Watch’s website. The decision came days after the organization published a report on war crimes by Russian forces in Ukraine.
In April, authorities raided offices of several independent trade unions, detaining at least 14 of their leaders and members on charges of “organization of activities gravely violating public order.” In July, the Supreme Court of Belarus shut down four major independent trade unions and the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions.
By October, authorities had moved to shut down 653 civil society organizations. In January, amendments into the Criminal Code entered into force, reintroducing criminal liability for participation in activities of unregistered organizations, punishable with up to two years in prison.
Authorities continued repression against lawyers in retaliation for expressing views on rights issues, representing clients in politically motivated cases, and speaking out against the war in Ukraine. Since August 2020, at least 70 attorneys lost their licenses following arbitrary decisions of the Justice Ministry or politically motivated disbarment procedures. At time of writing, seven attorneys faced politically motivated criminal charges, ranging from “calls for actions damaging to Belarus’s national interests” to “organizing mass riots.” Lawyers also continued to face administrative charges, detentions, searches, and harassment.
Freedom of Expression, Attacks on Journalists
From January to October, the Belarusian Association of Journalists documented 93 cases of arbitrary detention, raids, fines, and administrative arrests of journalists. At time of writing, 28 journalists and media workers were behind bars on bogus criminal charges ranging from “insulting the president” to “treason” and “conspiracy to seize state power.”
By October, at least 29 independent media outlets had been designated “extremist” and blocked by the authorities.
In June, the Supreme Court designated TUT.BY media “an extremist organization.” At time of writing, three TUT.BY’s staff, including the editor-in-chief Maryna Zolatava, were behind bars on bogus criminal charges; nine more were placed under their own recognizance pending trial.
On July 13, a court in Homieĺ found Katsiaryna Andreyeva (Bakhvalova), a journalist from a Poland-based broadcaster Belsat, guilty of high treason. At time of sentencing, she was already serving another sentence. After this second verdict, the length of her jail time was increased to eight years and three months.
Prosecution of Political Opposition Members and Supporters
In December, a court in Homiel delivered judgement in the case against former presidential contender Siarhei Tsikhanouski and his five alleged supporters charged with “organizing mass protests.” Tsikhanouski, who is married to the Belarusian opposition leader in exile Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, was sentenced to 18 years in prison. The other defendants, including opposition politician, Mikalay Statkevich, and Radio Free Europe consultant, Ihar Losik, were sentenced to between 14 and 16 years in prison.
In August, authorities transferred Tsikhaunouski from a penal colony to prison with harsher detention conditions.
Humanitarian Crisis and Violence at Belarus-Poland Border
Starting in August 2021, Belarusian authorities orchestrated a humanitarian crisis by facilitating tourist visas to thousands of migrants, mainly from the Middle East, to encourage them to travel to the European Union borders. Pushed back to Belarus at the EU borders, migrants suffered serious abuses, including beatings and at least one instance of rape by Belarusian border guards and other security agents. Belarusian authorities prevented them from leaving the border areas and forced them to repeatedly attempt crossing into the EU. This resulted in hundreds of people stuck in limbo for weeks and months in circumstances that put their lives at risk.
Belarus remains the only country in Europe and Central Asia to carry out the death penalty. Authorities take months to inform families of an execution and refuse to disclose the place of burial, causing additional suffering.
In November 2021, the family of Viktar Paulau, who had been sentenced to death following his conviction for murder and larceny, finally received official confirmation of his death on May 13, 2021. Authorities executed Paulau despite the UN Human Rights Committee’s order to suspend his capital punishment while the committee considered his case.
The fate of Viktar Syarhel, convicted of murder and put on death row in 2021, is unknown. The family of Viktar Skrundzik, sentenced to death for murder and attempted murder, has yet to receive any official confirmation of his death, although in September 2021 the state broadcaster referred to Skrundzik’s execution.
In May, amendments to the Criminal Code entered into force, introducing the death penalty for vaguely defined non-lethal “attempted acts of terrorism.”
Key International Actors
In November 2021, 35 OSCE states invoked the Vienna Human Dimension Mechanism, highlighting the failure of Belarusian authorities to investigate and remedy gross human rights violations.
Between December 2021 and September 2022, the United States, Canada, the European Union, and the United Kingdom introduced further sanctions against Belarus in response to continuing attacks on human rights, including sanctions against individuals and entities, and actions to expand and tighten export controls to Belarus.
The UN Human Rights Committee issued three decisions on capital punishment cases in Belarus. In September 2021, the committee found violations of the right to life and the right to fair trial in the case of Aliaksei Mikhalenia, who had been executed in 2018. In March 2022, the committee condemned the execution of Viktar Paulau. In May 2022, the UN body found that Belarusian authorities ill-treated the mother of Pavel Sialiun as they mailed her son’s death row clothes to her and refused to reveal the place of his burial.
In February, the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe, issued an urgent interim opinion on the constitutional reform in Belarus, stressing that it “fails to correct the strong imbalance of powers […] and indeed may even aggravate it.”
In March, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights presented a new report under its mandate relating to examination of the human rights situation in Belarus in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election and in its aftermath, documenting rights abuses and lack of effective investigation. In April, the UN Human Rights Council renewed this mandate for one year. In July, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Belarus presented her annual report documenting the continuous deterioration of the human rights situation; the mandate of the special rapporteur was renewed by the Human Rights Council in June.
In May, the European Parliament issued a resolution condemning the crackdown on trade unionists. In August, the Council of the EU reiterated its support for the democratic aspirations of Belarusian people.
On July 21, the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) voted in favor of granting UN consultative status to the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, whose application had been unfairly blocked for years by Russia and China.
In November, the UN Human Rights Committee expressed “profound regret” that Belarus had denounced the First Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, blocking the UN Human Rights Committee’s mandate to review individual complaints from Belarus.
In November, the European Parliament adopted a resolution, calling on Belarusian authorities to cease the continuing repression and reiterating support for Belarusian democratic opposition and civil society.