During Alexander Lukashenko’s 17 years in power, his government has repeatedly tightened control over civil society, alienating the country from their European neighbors and other foreign bodies in the process. In recent times this policy seemed to have thawed and some activists in the country, as well as the international community, had hoped this signaled a move towards greater respect for human rights and civil liberties in Belarus. These hopes were dashed the night Belarus’ presidential elections, 19th December 2010.
More than 30,000 people took to the streets, heading for independence square in the centre of the Belarusian capital Minsk that evening to peacefully protest what they feared would be yet another stolen election. When Lukashenko declared that he had received 79.67% of the vote, a few masked people started breaking windows in the main government building, which overlooks Independence Square. Police and security forces moved in and beat everyone within reach, most of them peaceful protesters, kicking those who fell, and chasing and grabbing people, including bystanders, in adjacent streets.
Over 600 civil society activists were arrested and detained that night. The KGB (Belarusian secret police) arrested more than 35 members of the opposition amongst them presidential candidates, journalists and activists. People were herded into large trucks, being used as mobile prisons and taken away.
In response he UN Human Rights Council passed Resolution 17/24 expressing deep concern at the ‘severe deterioration’ in overall human rights in Belarus since the 19 December 2010 presidential election and urged the government to end the ‘politically motivated persecution and harassment of opposition leaders, representatives of civil society, human rights defenders, lawyers, independent media, students and those defending them.’
The KGB used mobile phone signals to find others who had attended the peaceful demonstration and over the next two weeks administrative courts sentenced at least 725 people to between 10 and 15 days “administrative detention” or “misdemeanor detention” for participating in an unsanctioned gathering.
These trials took place behind closed doors, with journalists and relatives excluded, and hearings that typically lasted between 10 and 15 minutes. In most cases, the accused had no defense counsel and was not allowed to call witnesses. Prominent members of the opposition were not tried straight away and continued to be held in isolation. Many detainees reported being physically abused during their arrest guards punched, kicked, pushed and hit them with batons. Those arrested have reported being kept in cruel and inhumane conditions.
Many have spoken about being held in overcrowded cells in freezing temperatures with nothing more than a wooden board to sleep on, some did not have even that and had to share beds or take turns sleeping. Many, including Free Belarus Now director Natalia Kaliada, have also spoken of being forced to stand in against a wall without food or drink for long periods of time. Many were threatened and abused by the prison staff. Women were denied access to hygiene products.
Many of those who had been injured when the riot police attacked the protest were denied medical assistance. Presidential candidate Uladzimir Neklyaev was forcebly removed from hospital, where he had been taken there after being seriously beaten by riot police. He had been diagnosed with a serious head trauma but disregarding this KGB officers removed him from the hospital while he was still attached to an IV drip.
Uladzimir was charged with the offence of organising “mass disturbance”. During his detention he was denied adequate legal and medical assistance, despite his severe injuries. On the 29 January 2011 he was released from prison and placed under strict house arrest.
Presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov was also badly beaten. His legs were badly injured but as his wife, journalist Irina Khallip, and members of his campaign team tried to take him to hospital they were stopped and both Andrei and Iryna were arrested. Andrei was not allowed to see a doctor, his family or a lawyer for several weeks. His family were given no information about his condition or even if he was alive.
On 29 December Andrei Sannikov was charged with the criminal offence of organising mass disorder. Andrei Sannikov’s lawyer was granted only intermittent access to him and expressed fears that he was not receiving adequate medical attention for his injuries. The lawyer was subsequently threatened with disbarment, and eventually disbarred for raising concerns about his client’s health.
As of March 7, 2011, 38 people were charged for organizing and/or participating in riots, including opposition members and 5 presidential candidates. While detainees have occasionally had a lawyer present during interrogations, none has been able to meet discretely or privately with their legal representation. Lawyers for several detainees say they were warned unofficially by the Ministry of Justice and other officials not to speak publicly about their clients’ conditions; some have now been disbarred.
Although there have been many pardons issued in the last few months and many of the political prisoners have now been released there are still at least 10 that remain in custody in worsening conditions. Subject to increasing pressure to admit guilt for crime they did not commit. These include presidential candidates Andrei Sannikov and Mikalai Statkevich.
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