Belarus escalates crackdown against civil society


Just days after a carefully staged-managed All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, convened as a show of support for the country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus has escalated its crackdown against civil society.

Belarusian law enforcement officials carried out a nationwide wave of raids targeting human rights defenders and journalists on February 16, rounding up at least 40 people and searching their homes and offices, rights groups have confirmed.

Both Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International said that among those searched and detained were dozens of human rights defenders, journalists, and members of independent trade unions, including the Viasna Human Rights Centre, the Belarusian Association of Journalists, Barys Zvozskau Belarusian Human Rights House, and Belarus Solidarity Foundation.

The Belarusian Investigative Committee, a law enforcement agency responsible for criminal investigations, stated that the searches had targeted groups “positioning themselves as human rights organisations,” with the stated purpose of “establishing the circumstances of the financing of the protests.”

According to Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, the raids are part of a blatant intimidation campaign.

“Belarusian authorities are targeting human rights defenders and independent journalists, apparently trying to eviscerate what’s left of Belarus’ civil society,” he said.

UN Human Rights Council set to debate Belarus

The raids took place a week before the February 22 start of the 46th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, where the crackdown in Belarus in the wake of the disputed August 9, 2020 presidential election – which Alexander Lukashenko claims to have won with an implausible 80 per cent of the vote – is on the agenda.

Last week, Mr Lukashenko presided over the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly in the capital Minsk, where 2,700 carefully chosen delegates – mostly government officials, and the heads of state-owned enterprises and institutions – gathered to hear the president’s plans for the next five years.

Very little actual policy was announced, however, beyond a commitment to create a commission that will “examine the possibility” of constitutional reform.

There was no mention of the suggestion Mr Lukashenko put forward in September of last year, at the height of the protests against him, to quickly put in place a new constitution and hold a new election.

HRW is now calling on members of the UN’s Human Rights Council members to adopt a resolution at its upcoming session condemning the abuses committed since the presidential election, providing for robust monitoring and reporting on Belarus and calling for those responsible for violations to be held accountable.

Confiscated equipment

While most of the activists and journalists rounded up on February 16 were released, several are still believed by their colleagues to be in custody as they have not been able to make contact with them.

During the searches, law enforcement agents confiscated equipment, including cameras, memory sticks, hard drives, and laptops, as well as bank cards, documents, and cash.

“They took our equipment to prevent us from filming, to scare us, and to scare others,” a journalist whose house was searched told Human Rights Watch. The journalist said that during the three-hour search of her home, police confiscated her camera, laptop, three hard drives, and all of her bank cards.

The raids began at around 7 a.m. in Minsk, at the apartment of Barys Haretski, press secretary of the Belarusian Association of Journalists. He wrote on social media that the police were at his front door. He later said on the organisation’s Telegram channel that when he opened the door, the police told him to put his hands behind his head and proceeded to search his home thoroughly, including the trash cans and the refrigerator.

After a three-hour search, the authorities confiscated his laptop, two phones, and some money.

The authorities also searched the rented apartment in Gomel of Andrej Stryzhak, co-founder of the Belarus Solidarity Foundation, a fundraising initiative to support families in which the breadwinner had lost their income as a result of their protest activities.

They also searched the apartments belonging to Strizhak’s parents in Rechytsa, and the parents of his former wife, Yauhenia Parashchanka, who is the press-secretary of the Barys Zvozskau Belarusian Human Rights House. They confiscated Strizhak’s parents’ hard drive and a cell phone, and Parashchanka told media that the police confiscated almost all of her parents’ savings in cash and took their bank cards, which they use to get their pensions.

Journalists held

Police also searched the office of the Belarusian Association of Journalists and held its chairman, Andrei Bastunets, for the duration of the search; the Minsk and Mahiliou offices of the Viasna Human Rights Centre; and the homes of Viasna’s chairman, Ales Bialiatski; the group’s lawyer, Pavel Sapelka; the coordinator of the Campaign against the Death Penalty, Andrei Paluda, and others.

In some instances, those conducting the searches used force or intimidation. The police broke open the front door of the apartment of a Viasna human rights defender, Dzmitry Salauyou. When searching the house of Arsenyi Bastunets, Andrei Bastunets’ son, eight police officers, one of them armed, told him to face the wall and told his girlfriend to lie face down on the floor.

Belarusian authorities unleashed a sweeping crackdown on peaceful protesters and their supporters in the wake of the presidential election. The authorities jailed dozens of political opposition figures including presidential candidates, civic activists, and human rights defenders.

Journalists have faced detention, ill-treatment, fines, and trumped-up charges, and at least 11 are currently behind bars in connection with the ongoing protests. Two more journalists, Darya Chultsova and Katsiaryna Andreyeva, were this week each sentenced to two years in jail for “grossly violating public order” in connection with their reporting about the protests.

“The Belarusian authorities have now set their sights on human rights defenders and journalists whose only crime has been to document the wave of gross human rights violations committed by security forces following last August’s contested presidential election,” says Aisha Jung, Amnesty International’s chief campaigner for Belarus.

“This is clearly a centrally-organised and targeted attempt to decimate the country’s independent media and human rights organisations through terrifying home raids, harassment and persecution. The authorities are bent on preventing them and discouraging others from carrying out their critical and legitimate human rights and journalistic work. The shocking and unprecedented lawlessness that we have witnessed from the state since last year flies in the face of widespread international concern and criticism.”

Opposition leader on trial

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) issued a report on November 20 concluding that the Belarus authorities committed “massive and systemic” human rights violations before and in the aftermath of the presidential election and calling, among other things, for those responsible for torture and other abuses to be brought to justice.

“Belarusian authorities on February 16 escalated their brutal crackdown on human rights and their defenders,” added HRW’s Hugh Williamson said. “Strong action is needed in Geneva to stop this campaign and begin to restore fundamental freedoms in the country.”

A day after the raids, leading Belarusian opposition figure Viktor Babaryko went on trial on charges of bribery and money laundering.

Mr Babaryko had planned to run against Lukashenko in last year’s election but was arrested in June.

Babaryko is accused of receiving bribes and “laundering funds obtained by criminal means” when he was head of Belgazprombank, the Belarusian branch of a bank belonging to Russian energy giant Gazprom. He faces a 15-year prison sentence if found guilty.

The courthouse in Minsk where the trial is taking place has been cordoned off by police and closed to independent journalists.

“Darkness, malice and lies cannot last forever. The dawn will come and light up the vastness of our Belarus,” Mr Babaryko said through his lawyers on the eve of the trial.

Meanwhile, a UK-based seating manufacturer KAB has announced that it will no longer supply its partner, the Belarusian state-owned Minsk Tractor Company MTZ, whilst the repression in Belarus continues.

“I hope this small gesture will make a difference to the cause of the Belarusian people and that the situation improves for the citizens of the country,” said Steven Sennet, a director of KAB Seating.

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