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"We must look for ways to free our colleagues." Persecution of human rights defenders in Belarus discussed at OSCE conference

2023 2023-10-09T16:33:38+0300 2023-10-09T16:33:38+0300 en The Human Rights Center “Viasna” The Human Rights Center “Viasna”
The Human Rights Center “Viasna”

The annual OSCE Conference on the Human Dimension, Europe's largest conference on human rights and democracy, is taking place in Warsaw from October 2 to 13. On October 6, a side event was held titled Persecution of Human Rights Defenders in Belarus as an International Crime. At the event, representatives of Belarusian and international human rights organizations discussed the general situation with the persecution of their colleagues in Belarus, the most common tools for attacking human rights organizations and made specific recommendations to the current authorities of Belarus, the UN, and foreign governments.

At the OSCE Conference on October 6, 2023

The side event was attended by Viasna activist Pavel Sapelka, human rights defender from Human Constanta Enira Branitskaya, representative of the World Organization against Torture Maryia Shchyshchankova, human rights defender from Human Rights Watch Tatsiana Lokshyna, Aliaksandra Leibava from the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), as well as a representative of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders.

At least 93 human rights defenders imprisoned on trumped-up charges

After mass protests following the rigged 2020 presidential election, human rights defenders were one of the main targets of political persecution in Belarus. The Belarusian authorities use a wide range of tools and policies to prosecute human rights defenders, ranging from changes in legislation and the use of accusations of extremist activity, physical attacks, interrogations and threats to family members, to the closure of organizations and long prison terms as retaliation for human rights activities. As a result of this policy, all human rights organizations, independent media, and trade unions were closed in Belarus, and their members were brought to criminal responsibility. As of August 1, 2023, at least 93 human rights defenders, including members and employees of human rights organizations, trade unionists, lawyers and journalists, were imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Many Belarusian human rights defenders and entire human rights organizations were forced to emigrate. The detention and forced expulsion of human rights defenders prevent the documentation of human rights violations committed in Belarus and deprive victims and vulnerable groups of much-needed assistance and remedy. This policy of mass repression, which has not stopped since the beginning of the crisis in 2020, is equal to the international crime of persecution.

"We hope for the political support of democratic states and international organizations" 

Viasna human rights defender Pavel Sapelka at the OSCE conference
During the event, Viasna human rights defender Pavel Sapelka drew attention to the consistent and massive persecution of human rights defenders in Belarus:

"The Belarusian authorities have reduced the possibilities of human rights organizations as much as possible. For a long time, one of their tools was severe repressive legislation regulating the activities of public associations, which the chairman of Viasna Human Rights Center Ales Bialiatski fell victim to in 2011. Then he was arrested in a criminal case and convicted for the first time. After the events of 2020, when the presidential elections were held, direct repression began against all human rights organizations without exception. Now there is not a single registered human rights organization left in Belarus, and the activities of unregistered organizations have been again criminalized. Two well-known human rights organizations, Belarusian Association of Journalists and Viasna, have been declared "extremist formations".

It was painful to learn about Nasta Loika, about our organization; Viasna has survived the imprisonment of five members and two volunteers, as well as searches, arrests, and detentions of dozens of members and volunteers of the organization.

Our colleagues Valiantsin Stefanovich, Uladzimir Labkovich have been imprisoned for more than two years, and volunteers Maryia Rabkova and Andrei Chapiuk have been imprisoned for more than three years and are in penal colonies. The situation with Ales Bialiatski is even more tragic: the Nobel Peace Prize laureate has been sentenced to imprisonment and continues to be in a colony among recidivist criminals. Leanid Sudalenka has fully served his sentence of imprisonment."

In addition, the human rights activist recalled the destroyed independent trade unions and the persecution of their leaders, who were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. These are political prisoners and representatives of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions Aliaksandr Yarashuk, Siarhei Antusevich, Iryna But-Husaim, who were accused of actions grossly violating public order (Part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code). Yarashuk was also accused of calls for restrictive measures, other actions aimed at harming the national security of the Republic of Belarus (Part 3 of Article 361 of the Criminal Code). The leaders of the Trade Union of Radioelectronic Industry Workers, Henadz Fiadynich and Vasil Berasneu, were sentenced to up to 9 years in a penal colony, and Viachaslau Areshka to up to 8 years of imprisonment in a medium-security penal colony. All were accused of calling for restrictive measures aimed at harming the national security of the Republic of Belarus (Part 3 of Article 361 of the Criminal Code), inciting other social hatred (Part 3 of Article 130 of the Criminal Code), creating an extremist formation or participating in it (Part 1 and Part 3 of Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code).

"In a situation where we cannot rely on the open support of the Belarusian people, who are silenced by force and threats of brutal repression, we hope for the political support of democratic states and international organizations, as well as the solidarity of our colleagues from national and international human rights organizations. Our colleagues continue to be among the one and a half thousand political prisoners in Belarus, and we must look for ways to release them," Pavel Sapelka summed up.

The persecution is aimed at deterring any human rights activity in the country

Human rights defenders are a social group that is deliberately persecuted by the Belarusian regime, as it is perceived as a group of dissidents who pose a threat to that regime. The prosecution is also aimed at punishing human rights defenders for their activities and deterring any further human rights activity in the country, thereby undermining every aspect of the right to human rights protection in Belarus, colleagues from the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders concluded.

Colleagues from the Observatory for the Protection of the Rights of Human Rights Defenders once again called on the government of Belarus to immediately and unconditionally release all detained human rights defenders, guarantee the physical integrity and psychological well-being of all human rights defenders in Belarus, put an end to all acts of persecution of all human rights defenders and human rights organizations in Belarus, and ensure under any circumstances that they can carry out their legitimate activities without any obstacles or fear of reprisals, as well as a number of other recommendations.

Among other things, Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders asked the UN and regional human rights mechanisms to call on the Belarusian authorities to put an end to all human rights violations and all forms of harassment, intimidation, and attacks on human rights defenders, to continue to take available measures to urge the Belarusian authorities to fulfill their obligations to human rights defenders, including by documenting, notifying and condemning violations, sending requests to visit human rights defenders in custody and regularly interviewing the authorities about the state of health and conditions of detention of human rights defenders, as well as demanding the release of detained human rights defenders and ensuring a legal assessment of individual cases and the situation as a whole.

Government of foreign states are called on to continue to take measures to urge the Belarusian authorities to fulfill their obligations to human rights defenders, as well as to continue to provide financial and material support to Belarusian civil society organizations and human rights defenders, including those in exile.

The Conference on the Human Dimension is organized annually by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). It is being held for the 27th time.

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