On December 2, a virtual “round table” was held with the participation of leaders of civil society organizations in Belarus, organized by the EU delegation to the UN. The topic of discussion was the situation with political prisoners in the country.

 

UN round table on political prisoners in Belarus: little strokes fell great oaks

“This is unacceptable,” UN experts, ambassadors, and leaders of civil society organizations in Belarus exchanged views on overcoming the crisis

On December 2, a virtual “round table” was held with the participation of leaders of civil society organizations in Belarus, organized by the EU delegation to the UN. The topic of discussion was the situation with political prisoners in the country.

Eamon Gilmore, EU Special Representative for Human Rights, stated in his opening speech that massive repressions by the authorities have been taking place for months. The presidential elections in August 2020 were neither free nor fair, and Lukashenko’s government lacks democratic legitimacy, while proposals for dialogue were rejected by the Belarusian authorities. Over the past few months, more than 30,000 Belarusians have been arrested for political reasons. There are reports of more than 500 cases of torture, as well as a number of murders, including Raman Bandarenka. 319 journalists have been arrested. Today there are over 140 political prisoners, including Sergei Tikhanovsky, Viktar Babaryka, Maria Kalesnikava. The situation is getting worse, but the UN will support Belarusian civil society because civil society and human rights organizations help to draw attention to the systematic nature of human rights violations in Belarus.

Ilze Brands Kehris, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, said that in continuation of the September report on Belarus, the UN Human Rights Council will receive updated information the day after tomorrow. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets to exercise their right to participate in public affairs but faced excessive violence from the authorities (intimidation, threats, arrests, and torture). NGOs have reported 2,000+ cases of torture and ill-treatment since August – all incidents go unaddressed. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and other institutions have appealed to the authorities to stop the violence, release political prisoners – to no avail. Belarus needs a dialogue, and it will be supported.

 

It is impossible to conduct dialogue in an atmosphere of fear and repressions

Valiantsin Stefanovic, vice-chairman of Viasna Human Rights Centre, noted that politically motivated persecution has been the most frequent and regular way of human rights violations in Belarus since 1996. A number of articles of the Criminal Code contain political overtones, for example, about discrediting Belarus or insulting the president. Several articles of the Criminal Code directly oppose the exercise of the rights to public assemblies and are discriminatory against human rights by their nature. There are instances of bullying and torture. Unlike the previous elections in 2015, repressions and detentions began in May, several months before the elections. After the elections, the situation only worsened. More than 500 arrested persons are under criminal articles, 147 detainees are recognized as prisoners of conscience. Among those arrested, there are activists of Viasna.

Ilya Nuzov, Eastern Europe and Central Asia Desk Director at International Federation for Human Rights FIDH, “The number of political prisoners is fluctuating, as many are being arbitrarily arrested for 15 days. After serving their sentence, they are being released, but their initial arrests remain politically motivated.”

 

Instead of investigating the murders, the authorities harass journalists who shed light on the circumstances of the deaths

Volha Siakhovich, member of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, recalled the recent cases of arrests of doctor Artyom Sorokin and TUT.BY journalist Katerina Borisevich for publishing medical information about the murder of Raman Bandarenka. The case with Bandarenka is indicative: instead of investigating the murder, the authorities are persecuting the journalists who shed light on the circumstances of the death. Hundreds of journalists have served some terms for their work during the protests, and a number of journalists are under criminal charges. At the same time, the conditions of detention in Belarusian prisons are discriminatory and humiliating, as evidenced by the detention of mediator Liliya Vlasova.

 

It is encouraging to see the women’s movement against violence

Alena Aharelysheva, member of the Coordination Council Feminist Group, “Girls and women have shown themselves in peaceful protests. For the first month, brutality was restrained towards women, but after that women, including girls, pregnant women, and retirees, also became the targets of the regime’s violence. The director of the children’s hospice in Grodno was forced to leave Belarus due to criminal prosecution. The example of Volha Khizhynkova, Miss Belarus, who was arrested for participating in peaceful protests is flagrant.”

 

The judicial system in Belarus is in default and does not work

Aleh Hulak, chairman of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, spoke about how people suffer from human rights violations in Belarus. There were numerous violations before, but what is happening now goes beyond all boundaries. There are no instruments of protection against repression and violence in the country, and there is no hope for a fair trial either. At first, there was an attempt to talk to the authorities, but they do not hear. No action has been taken on their part to end the violence. Only UN mechanisms can be used in relation to Belarus because the country is not a member of other structures that presuppose responsibility for human rights violations. Every day brings new instances of criminal cases against peaceful protesters. Numerous complaints about violence, torture, ill-treatment of the detainees have received no response, and the unlawful actions of the security forces remain unpunished. The situation is very difficult. It is good to talk about dialogue, but there must be conditions in which it can be carried out, first of all, the violence must end and political prisoners shall be released.

 

We must not forget about those who are in captivity and must constantly fight for their release

The ambassadors and diplomatic representatives of Estonia, the USA, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Sweden, Ireland, Denmark, who spoke in continuation of the discussion, testified that peaceful protests against the backdrop of repressions, especially with the participation of women, made a strong impression on them, and once again called for the release of all politically motivated prisoners, including journalists, and investigating human rights violations. The OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism confirms that the elections were fraudulent against the background of massive human rights violations. The current situation is a “dark period” in the modern history of Belarus, and impunity must be stopped. In its time, the OSCE members defined human rights, fundamental freedoms, democracy, and the rule of law as a goal for all its members, and Belarus must also do everything in the name of its achievement.

 

How to stop lawlessness and impunity? Could an international investigation mechanism already recommended in the OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism be created?

The experts noted that there are no rapid response mechanisms and, unfortunately, Belarus is not a member of the Council of Europe, has not ratified the European Convention on Human Rights, so the international community should rely on UN mechanisms. The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) can also help to some extent. At the same time, the second UN special rapporteur on human rights in Belarus is not allowed into the country. The United Nations Convention against Torture has not been fully ratified by Belarus, which also prevents the arrival of foreign experts in the country. Unfortunately, the OSCE delegate is not present in the country. On the contrary, political sanctions work, for example, following the results of the 2010 elections, the threat of their expansion led to the release of political prisoners.

 

There is no one magic tool to change the situation, everything helps bit by bit

The history of human rights violations in modern Belarus is long. The 2020 elections differed from previous ones in that the arrests began even before they were held. There is no opportunity to talk about the true results of the voting, since the authorities do not give them publicity, but sociological research and observations allow us to conclude that Lukashenko was not the winner of the elections. There have never been so many political prisoners. Yes, before they were there too, and Belarusian human rights activists drew the attention of the world community that the situation in this regard is acute, but now there are hundreds of prisoners of conscience.

Maria Kalesnikava with a heart, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya with a fist, and Veronika Tsepkalo with a Victory sign, © Poster of a major event in the capital of Minsk on July 30, 2020.

In conclusion, the speakers once again stressed that the support of international organizations and the community is important, and one must believe that changes for the better are possible.

Pavel Pernikau, member of the board, head of the press center of the Belarusian section of the ISHR