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Repression and resistance in Belarus: A monthly chronology

18.03.2021 Source: hifex.org

A monthly chronology of repression and resistance in Belarus, based on the work of IFEX members and other international and domestic actors.

The rigged presidential election of August 2020 sparked a huge wave of popular protest that swept across Belarus, bringing together people from all sections of society in a call for President Lukashenko’s ouster and new elections. The authorities’ response was a crackdown of such magnitude and brutality that it grabbed headlines around the world. Tens of thousands of peaceful protesters were detained, as well as hundreds of journalists and members of civil society organisations. There were credible reports of torture in police custody. As we launch this dedicated page, that crackdown is ongoing: recent months have seen multiple arrests of journalists, with several dubious convictions, as well as a campaign of harassment targeting civil society organisations, including IFEX member the Belarusian Association of Journalists.

The response from the international community has been one of condemnations, calls for independent investigations into human rights abuses and multiple rounds of sanctions. IFEX members have been campaigning on behalf of persecuted activists and journalists, and have also launched numerous advocacy initiatives aimed at keeping the international focus on events in Belarus.

IFEX’s Europe and Central Asia Regional Editor, Cathal Sheerin, has been providing updates on all this work and on the situation in Belarus more generally in his monthly Regional Briefs. On this page, you’ll find his updates collected together, always with the most recent at the top, to present a regularly updated monthly chronology of IFEX members’ activities and other key developments in Belarus.

February 2021

With the crackdown on independent media and opposition activists continuing into February, ARTICLE 19, the Belarusian Association of Journalists, the European Federation of Journalists and Index on Censorship joined other rights groups in a joint call for the immediate release of all journalists detained in Belarus. Among those journalists were Belsat reporters Katsiaryna Andreyeva and Daria Chultsova who, mid-month, were sentenced to two years in prison — solely for reporting on a protest in November 2020.

Mid-month also saw police raids on rights organisations’ offices and, in some cases, their members’ homes. Among the groups targeted was local IFEX member the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ). BAJ’s chairman Andrei Bastunets was briefly detained while officers searched his office. The organisation’s premises were also sealed, seriously obstructing its work.

Towards the end of the month, at the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights presented her report on the situation in Belarus in which she detailed ongoing, serious rights violations and made multiple recommendations with regard to redress for victims and the improvement of the rights environment generally. At the enhanced interactive dialogue session, ARTICLE 19 and BAJ delivered an oral statement calling on the Council to put “greater accountability mechanisms in place to collect and preserve evidence of crimes under international law, and ultimately ensure that perpetrators are held accountable”.

January 2021

In Belarus, the popular protests against President Lukashenko’s regime continue, as do the arrests and harassment of the independent press and activists. IFEX members highlighted three cases of detained writers or journalists this month: translator Volha Kalackaja, detained for supporting the peaceful protests; journalist Andrei Aliaksandrau, detained for allegedly organising mass protests; and journalist Ihar Losik, accused of organising “mass riots” and currently on hunger strike.

Lukashenko’s propaganda machine suffered a blow in January when the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) axed Belarus as one of the two hosts of the world championship scheduled to take place in May and June. Cancelling the events in Minsk was one of the requests made by the European Federation of Journalists when it wrote to the IIHF’s president, René Fasel, earlier in the month. Fasel had seemed reluctant to punish Belarus, but businesses sponsoring the tournament began to withdraw fearing bad publicity: money obviously talks.

Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has declared a Day of Solidarity with Belarus on 7 February, providing rights organisations with a useful date around which to coordinate advocacy.

Please check out PEN Belarus’s new report on the persecution of the cultural sector. According to their findings, at least 500 individuals working in this sector have had their rights violated by the authorities in 2020.

December 2020

While the authorities continue to target independent press and opposition voices in Belarus, international pressure on the regime is escalating.

December saw:

  • a joint statement by IFEX members and PEN Belarus on International Human Rights Day, calling for immediate investigations into the human rights abuses of the Lukashenko regime and redress;
  • further round of EU sanctions imposed on “high-level officials responsible for the ongoing violent repression”;
  • sanctions imposed by the International Olympic Committee — including a ban on President Lukashenko attending the Olympic Games – because the Belarusian National Olympic Committee had not “appropriately protected… Belarusian athletes from political discrimination”;
  • a criminal probe launched by Lithuania against Belarusian regime officials over alleged torture of detained opposition activists;
  • 42 states at the Human Rights Council (HRC) session on Belarus condemning the authorities’ repression of the independent press and calling for the implementation of the OSCE Moscow Mechanism report recommendations on freedom of expression and the media;
  • the launch of an online platform – an initiative of opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya — to collect evidence that will be used in future prosecutions of those who are implicated in the regime’s human rights abuses.

IFEX members continued to press for justice in Belarus. PEN America and PEN International collaborated on a statement with PEN Belarus, which the president of that centre, writer Svetlana Alexievich, delivered via video at the aforementioned HRC session. PEN America also launched a series of video statements by prominent US politicians expressing solidarity with those targeted by the Belarusian regime.

Promoting awareness of the events in Belarus, Reporters Without Borders published videos of interviews with three Belarusian journalists: Natalya LubneuskayaIhar Karnei and Marina Zolotova, the editor of popular news website TUT.by.

This month, ARTICLE 19 continued to add to its own series of videos of interviews with rights activists and members of the independent media.

In late December, the Polish Association of Journalists, in cooperation with the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine, the Belarusian Association of Journalists and the European Federation of Journalists launched an online book entitled I am a journalist. Why do you beat me?, which, via interviews with Belarusian journalists, documents the regime’s persecution of independent media.

November 2020

November was another month of repressionresistance and tragedy in Belarus. But it was also one that saw great acts of global solidarity and a ramping up of international pressure on President Lukashenko’s regime.

Mid-month, IFEX member the Belarusian Association of Journalists won the First Canada-UK Media Freedom Award in recognition of its stellar work in the face of the ongoing, brutal crackdown on the opposition and independent media. Around the same time, the Belarus Free Theatre (a theatre group that has fought against the regime for many years) was awarded the Magnitsky Human Rights Award for Courage under Fire. (This followed on nicely from last month, which saw the 2020 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought awarded to Belarus’s democratic opposition.) Another highly significant act of solidarity took place towards the end of November, when US President-elect Joe Biden invited exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya to his inauguration in January 2021.

November also saw EU foreign ministers agree to push ahead with a new round of sanctions targeting senior officials in Lukashenko’s regime and entities that finance his government. Rights experts also delivered important statements and reports: UN Special rapporteurs called for an independent investigation into violence against protesters and condemned the targeting of women human rights defenders; an EU resolution condemned the murder of protester Raman Bandarenka and demanded an investigation into the many rights violations carried out by Lukashenko’s regime; a hard-hitting OSCE report under the Moscow Mechanism was published, calling for new elections in line with international standards, the release of all prisoners held for political reasons and the establishment of an independent, international investigation into all allegations of torture and ill-treatment.

The numbers of arrests and rights violations that have taken place over the last few months is staggering. A document leaked this month showed that almost 26,000 people had been detained since the rigged presidential election on 9 August. According to statistics collated by the Belarusian Association of Journalists, 393 journalists have been detained, beaten or harassed by the authorities since the day of the election.

To stay up to date with the rights situation in Belarus, check out the work of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, the European Federation of JournalistsPEN Belarus, the Belarus Free TheatreReporters Without BordersHuman Rights WatchARTICLE 19PEN International and PEN America.

October 2020

In Belarus, the huge, overwhelmingly peaceful protests against President Lukashenko’s regime continue — as does the brutal response by state authorities.

October saw the 2020 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought awarded to Belarus’s democratic opposition (which includes the Coordination Council — formed after the rigged presidential election in August – and other prominent civil society figures). The month once again saw many hundreds of protesters arrested, including workers planning to take part in a national strike; it also saw the popular Telegram channel NEXTA designated “extremist” by the authorities (NEXTA is an independent news resource that shares videos and photos related to the protests).

The Belarusian Association of Journalists, in collaboration with other rights groups, this month produced a detailed report on the human rights situation in Belarus post-election — please check it out.

 

September 2020

In Belarus, the huge demonstrations calling on President Lukashenko to step down continued in September, as did the brutal tactics employed by the authorities to repress these overwhelmingly peaceful protests. The month saw further persecution of journalists and many hundreds of protesters detained: so far, there have been an estimated 12,000 arrests since the rigged presidential election in August.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report showing that hundreds of these detainees were subjected to systematic beatings and torture whilst in custody. According to HRW, the victims described beatings, prolonged stress positions, electric shocks and rape; many had serious injuries, “including broken bones, cracked teeth, skin wounds, electrical burns, and mild traumatic brain injuries”.

The authorities continued to target prominent independent and opposition voices, including members of the Belarusian Association of Journalists and Belarusian PEN. The most high profile arrests included those of opposition leader Maryia Kalesnikava and lawyers Maksim Znak and Illya Saley, all of whom are ranking members of the Coordination Council (the opposition organisation set up after the presidential election). They are all accused of attempting to harm Belarus’s national security.

The Internationally renowned writer and president of Belarusian PEN, Svetlana Alexievich, was (until she left the country for medical treatment in late September) the only member of the Coordination Council still in Belarus who was not in jail. Early in the month she reported that she was being harassed at her home by masked men in plain clothes. In response, diplomats from at least seven countries rushed to her home to protect her.

Mid-month, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) announced an independent expert investigation into the repression in Belarus and the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution setting in motion close UN human rights monitoring of the situation.

Towards the end of the month, there were reports that the US, UK and Canada were close to imposing sanctions on Belarusian officials.

August 2020

The presidential election in Belarus on 9 August was conducted the way many previous elections were conducted: opposition candidates were harassed and hounded out of the country; peaceful protesters, activists, journalists and independent election monitors were detained; and, of course, the final vote count that handed President Lukashenko victory (once again) was highly dubious.

However, what was new was the scale and passion of the protests that followed the vote, which saw many tens of thousands take to the streets all over the country calling for free elections and for President Lukashenko to go. The violence with which this political dissent was met stunned the international community. There have been mass protests before — and also shockingly violent responses from the Belarusian authorities — but the latest protests are huge, still ongoing, and have spread to sections of society that aren’t usually seen at political demonstrations. Some commentators are speculating about whether Lukashenko can hang on to power.

IFEX members have been working hard to keep us informed about the ever-evolving situation. The Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), ARTICLE 19Human Rights WatchReporters Without Borders (RSF), the International Press Institute, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Free Press Unlimited have been invaluable sources of information for the latest news on attacks on the press, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.

Many scores of journalists have been detained and beaten by the police. In one day alone (27 August), approximately 50 were detained for merely covering the protests. At least 17 journalists working for foreign media have had their press accreditation withdrawn; some will be deported. Several thousand protesters have also been detained and there is very credible evidence of the widespread use of torture against detainees. Alongside these brutal tactics, the Belarusian authorities have intermittently shut down access to the internet in order to control information and impede the protesters from organising.

State news journalists have shown solidarity with their colleagues in the independent press. Several went on strike demanding that they be allowed to report the protests accurately. Many resigned their posts; some were fired.

However, the roles that the departing journalists left vacant have mostly been filled by state TV journalists from Russia. Belarusian state TV is now portraying the protesters as agents of the west.

The unfair election and the crackdown on protesters and journalists have been condemned internationally, including by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and UN Special Rapporteurs.

Mid-month, the European Federation of Journalists called on the EU to impose sanctions on individuals complicit in the crackdown. By the end of August, the EU had agreed to impose sanctions on up to 20 senior Belarusian officials.

July 2020

In Belarus, presidential elections are set to take place on 9 August. The incumbent, President Lukashenko, has been in power for 26 years and has a long history of dealing ruthlessly with any opposition – often jailing their candidates or barring them from appearing on the ballot (as happened this month). The last two months have seen hundreds of people arrested at peaceful protests calling for democratic change. Independent journalists and bloggers have also been targeted, with numerous reporters beaten up by police at demonstrations. The Belarusian Association of Journalists has been posting regular updates on its website and this month called for an end to the persecution of journalists.

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