Belarus: Report by Human Rights Watch. Shattering Hopes

The 31-page report documents the human rights violations that have occurred since the election – including persecution of opposition candidates and activists, abuse of detainees, trials behind closed doors, and raids on human rights organizations. The report also details allegations of extremely poor conditions in detention, denial of access to defense counsel, and government pressure on lawyers representing those facing criminal charges related to the post-election protest. These and other abuses contribute to a serious deterioration of the already poor state of human rights in Belarus, Human Rights Watch said. The report is based on interviews conducted in February 2011 in Minsk.

During Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s 16 years as president of Belarus, the government has
continuously tightened control over civil society, alienating its European neighbors and
other foreign actors in the process. The recent brief thaw in Belarus’ foreign relations had
led some activists inside Belarus, as well as policy makers outside the country, to hope this
grip would slacken. But such expectations were dashed on December 19, 2010—the night of
Belarus’s presidential election.
As many as 30,000 people took to the streets of the capital Minsk that evening to peacefully
protest what they feared would be yet another stolen election. When Lukashenka’s landslide
victory was declared, a few dozen 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.  
After more than a decade of stifled civic freedoms, Belarusian civil society activists and
independent media face new government harassment and threats in the wake of the post-
election protest. This report, based on research conducted in Minsk in February 2011,
documents the human rights violations that have occurred since the election—including
abuse of detainees, trials behind closed doors, and raids on human rights organizations—
which have led to a serious deterioration in the already poor state of human rights in Belarus.
On December 19 and in the days that followed, police arrested hundreds of people and
physically abused most of those they arrested by punching, pushing, kicking, and hitting
them with batons. During 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. 
Trials took place behind closed doors, with journalists and relatives excluded, and hearings
typically lasting between 10 and 15 minutes. In most cases, the accused had no defense
counsel and was not allowed to call witnesses. Detainees served their sentences in
overcrowded cells, where they were forced to sleep on the floor, share beds, or take turns
sleeping. Many say their cells were freezing and lacked toilets, that there was no easy
access to medical treatment, and that there were no hygiene items for women.

As of March 7, 2011, 38 people were charged for organizing and/or participating in riots,
including opposition members and 5 former presidential candidates.  More than 30 people
remained in pretrial custody at the end of February.  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 been disbarred. 
In late December 2010, authorities raided the offices of at least three prominent human
rights groups and seized computer equipment and documents. Since it is a criminal offense
in Belarus to participate in the activities of a non-registered association, those who work for
civil society groups have faced the threat of criminal prosecution for years: today they are
acutely vulnerable. 
Police and security forces also 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 nongovernmental organizations
(NGOs) are the only sources of independent information due to the government’s tight control
of print and broadcast media. Now their future is at risk due to new internet regulations that
give the government more powers to clamp down on online sources.
Human Rights Watch urges the Belarusian government to conduct a thorough and impartial
investigation into the use of force on December 19, 2010, and the treatment of all those
arrested in connection with the protests. Detainees who were not engaged in acts of violence
on December 19 should be released immediately. Belarusian authorities should ensure that
all detainees have unimpeded and confidential access to counsel, prompt medical
assistance, and can correspond and communicate with relatives. The government should
stop pressuring defence lawyers so that they can conduct their work effectively, without
harassment or reprisal. Trials relating to events of December 19 should be open to the public.
Belarus should end all forms of harassment of human rights defenders and ensure that the
rights to assembly and expression are observed. In order to allow civil society groups to
operate free from repression, Belarus should initiate legislation to repeal article 193.1 of the
Criminal Code, which makes participation in an unregistered organization a criminal offense.
The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) should adopt a resolution to condemn
the abuses in Belarus and call on the Belarusian authorities to immediately address them.
Concerned governments, including those of European Union (EU) member states and that of 
3   Human Rights Watch | March 2011 the United States, should exert concerted and sustained pressure via the sanctions they have adopted against Belarus to prod authorities to address human rights abuses following  the December 19 elections. These sanctions should not be lifted until all detainees who were  not involved in violence have been released and the Belarusian government concretely  demonstrates its commitment to fostering an open civil society. 

This report is based on research that Human Rights Watch conducted in Minsk between
February 3 to 9, 2011, and follow-up research conducted from Moscow. 
Three Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed 36 individuals in Minsk.  Interviewees
included people who witnessed and attended the Independence Square protest in Minsk;
those who had been released after serving time in administrative detention; released
suspects held on criminal riot charges and their relatives; and lawyers, NGO leaders, and
international human rights monitors who followed the situation in Belarus before and after
the December election.
Interviews took place in Russian, mostly individually, and in private. The majority of
interviewees asked us not to reveal their identity, and we have respected their wishes. The
notation used in this report uses a letter and a number for each interview; the letter
indicates the person who conducted the interview and the number refers to the person being
interviewed. To further protect the security of interviewees we do not note the location of
interviews. All interviews are on file with Human Rights Watch. 

Read the whole text