Human rights in Belarus have been subject to stringent repressions throughout Alexander Lukashenko’s 17 years in power. Sitting in the heart of Europe Belarus is ranked 154th in the Reporters without boarders index of press freedom, below Bahrain, Zimbabwe and Bolivia. Opposition members disappear or die in mysterious circumstances and peaceful protest is banned. In Belarus you can’t even stand on the street and clap. For a long time the internet has been Belarus’ only free space, until July this year when new regulations were brought in allowing the authorities to control what information the people of Belarus can publish or receive in cyberspace.
A report submitted to the UN Committee against Torture found ‘irrefutable facts of use of torture’. It found that between July 1999 and October 2010 there had been a systematic use of torture by the Belarusian authorities.
In one example from July 1999, Oleg Volchek, a human rights defender from Minsk, was ‘subject to subject to assault and battery by three militiamen’. The militiamen kicked and punched Volchek’s head, neck, spine and other parts of his body until he fainted.
More recently, the UN Human Rights Council found ‘credible allegations of torture’ among some of those detained on 19 December. Opposition candidate, Ales Mikhalevich, has spoken widely of the cruel and degrading treatment he suffered at the hands of the KGB. He was forced to stand outside naked in the cold, subjected to excruciating stress positions during searches and was forced to sleep in a cell where the temperature was kept at 10c. Mikhalevich was also refused access to defense lawyers.
Many members of the opposition, including presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov testified that they had been tortured whilst in custody during their trials. Since sentencing many of the detainees have been subject to conditions that could be considered torture. The most notable case is that of Zmitser Bandarenka. He has a spinal condition and during his detention has required serious medical assistance to avoid permanent paralysis. His access to doctors has been sporadic and restricted; he has received only partial information about his treatments and was not able to meet with his surgeon before being operated on. Zmitser was kept in the prison hospital for only two weeks before being transferred back to the penal colony. He has been unable to complete the months of immobile rehabilitation that is necessary following such major surgery. Now months on he is again in severe pain and has had to be again transferred to the prison hospital. During a phone call to his wife Zmitser has spoken of increased pressure from the authorities to sign a “pardon petition” admitting his guilt.
Torture in the Belarusian penal system is not just physical, extreme mental pressures have been exerted on the political prisoners. The younger prisoners such as Mikita Likhavid and Zmitser Dashkevich have been repeatedly placed in isolated “punishment cells” and had their belongings confiscated. Zmitser went on hunger strike in protest of his treatment prompting concerns about his health.
Complaints about torture used against participants of criminal procedures are often not properly examined. Responses to complaints of torture are subjected to a process of ‘ping-pong’, the act of passing reports from one authority to another, causing unreasonable delay and making it almost impossible for the prisoner’s families to intervene. Conditions have become so bad in recent months that it has prompted some prisoners families to hold press conferences in the hope that publicity will keep their relatives if not safe at least alive.
Most press in Belarus is state controlled and any independent journalists are subject to harassment and restricted freedoms. The 2011 World Report from Human Rights Watch notes that ‘Journalists are frequently harassed and detained for covering opposition rallies and other events authorities try to suppress.’ In addition to using intimidation to restrict press freedom, the government introduced a law in February 2010 requiring all media outlets to register, allowing them to opposition organisations a license to operate. In July further legislation was passed allowing the state grater control of online media and enabling it to exact the same control over online press as printed media. An OCSE report states that ‘all major TV stations with nationwide coverage demonstrated a clear bias in favour of the incumbent,’ by devoting 89 per cent of primetime news coverage to Lukashenko. In one example, ‘State-funded TV ONT devoted 8 hours and 17 minutes (94 per cent) of news coverage to the president’s campaign and official activities. All other candidates received a combined total of 32 minutes.’
Journalists are routinely harassed, bullied and arrested for reporting on human rights issues or the political opposition in Belarus. Following the December 19th protests police and security forces searched the premises of four independent media outlets and the homes of 12 journalists and confiscated their equipment. Authorities revoked the license of at least one radio station. The websites of online news and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) became the only sources of independent information Some journalist have had to flee the country and now live in exile including Natalya Radzina, editor of the Charter 97 website who has been granted asylum in Lithuania. Natalya was recently awarded the CPJ International Press Freedom Award.
Freedom of Expression
Belarus’s artistic community is subject to censorship and the restriction of its right to free expression. Songs deemed politically sensitive have been withdrawn from the airwaves, while artists that are simply not favoured by Lukashenko’s regime are restricted from performing in public. Artistic expression need not be overtly political in nature to attract the attention of the authorities. Simply addressing ‘inappropriate’ issues, such as suicide or homosexuality, is enough to severely restrict an artist’s ability to perform. Most notable within Belarus’s artistic community is the Belarus Free Theatre, a company that draws attention to the abuse of human rights in Belarus. Venue owners who have hosted performances by the Belarus Free Theatre have experienced harassment, intimidation, and in some instanced their licenses have been revoked, which results in the complete closure of their venue. The Belarus Free Theatre had to resort to holding performances outdoors under the guise of weddings to be able to perform. The founders of the Belarus Free Theatre, Nikolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada had to flee Belarus following the December 19th protests and now live in Britain.
Freedom of Assembly
Freedom of expression has been drastically curtailed following the pro-democracy demonstration of 19 December 2010. Demonstrations are now a weekly occurrence in major cities around Belarus. According to Minsk-based Viasna Human Rights Centre, since January 2011 over 2000 protesters have been forcibly arrested for weekly “silent protests”. Such protests include “clapping protests”, a peaceful protest that simply involves assembling in a public space and clapping. It is estimated that 80% of those arrested were issued fines or sentenced to between 5 and 15 days detention for “hooliganism.” A new law was drafted in response to the “silent protests.” It states that ‘joint mass presence of citizens in a public place that has been chosen beforehand, including an outdoor space, and at a scheduled time for the purpose of a form of action or inaction that has been planned beforehand and is a form of public expression of the public or political sentiments or protest.’ The actions taken against peaceful protesters and the proposed law to prohibit peaceful assembly is in flagrant violation of article 21 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Belarus is a signatory.
Freedom of Association
Human rights and civil society organisations (CSOs) deemed a threat by Lukashenko’s regime encounter severe restrictions on their freedom of association. It is near impossible to organise or communicate for those CSOs campaigning against human rights abuses in Belarus. The main tactic is to deny registration of any organisation deemed a threat to the political status quo. This renders any actions then taken by unregistered organisations illegal. Another is to revoke registration. For example, on 28 October 2003 the Supreme Court of the Republic of Belarus cancelled registration of Viasna Human Rights Centre for its participation in observation of the presidential election in 2001. KGB actions against unregistered CSOs are justified on the basis that such organisations are operating illegally. Unregistered CSOs are placed under surveillance, have their communications intercepted, their communications equipment confiscated, and operations shut down. Founder of Viasna Human Rights Centre, Ales Bialiatski was arrested in August 2011 and charged with tax fraud after he was forced to keep money in overseas accounts after his organistions registration was revoked. Ales has been sentenced to 4.5 years and a fine of 721.45 million rubles and pay taxes of 36 million. If he does not do so within one month then the state will repossess his property.
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