(Moscow) - The Belarusian authorities arbitrarily detained and abused hundreds of people following a rally protesting President Aliaksandr Lukashenka's re-election on December 19, 2010, and have since carried out a campaign to stifle civil society and free expression across the country, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.
The 31-page report, "Shattering Hopes: Post-Election Crackdown in Belarus," 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.
"For well over a decade the Belarusian government has steadily tightened its grip on civil society," said Anna Sevortian, Russia director at Human Rights Watch. "Now, the new wave of persecution is a crisis that requires a strong UN response."
Human Rights Watch and more than one hundred human rights organizations and activists urged the United Nations Human Rights Council, currently in session in Geneva, to adopt a resolution condemning human rights violations perpetrated in the aftermath of the December 19 presidential election and establishing steps the Belarusian government should take to improve the situation.
As many as 30,000 people took to the streets of the capital, Minsk, on December 19 peacefully to 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. 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.
That night and in the days that followed, police arrested hundreds of people. During the next two weeks, administrative courts sentenced at least 725 people to between 10 and 15 days "administrative detention" for participating in an unsanctioned gathering. Trials took place behind closed doors, and hearings typically lasted between 10 and 15 minutes. In most cases, those accused had no defense counsel and were 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.
The authorities are investigating more than 46 individuals on riot charges related to the December 19 protest, including seven presidential candidates, political opposition leaders, activists, and campaign workers; four have been convicted and sentenced to up to four years imprisonment, two were fined. At least 30 people - including two former presidential candidates - were still in detention at the end of February 2011. While detainees have occasionally had a lawyer present during interrogations, none have been able to meet privately with their lawyers. Lawyers for several detainees say they were warned unofficially by the Ministry of Justice and other officials not to speak publicly about their clients' cases conditions. As of March 2011, four lawyers had their licenses revoked and one had been disbarred.
"The pressure on lawyers is unprecedented and is sending a chilling message to the whole legal community to stay away from sensitive cases," said Sevortian. "All lawyers must be free to defend their clients without the fear of harassment or reprisal."
On the night of the protests, law enforcement units searched the offices of two organizations, the Viasna Human Rights Center and Charter 97, detaining 10 of Viasna's staff and confiscating computer and communications equipment. Police also detained the editor of Charter'97 along with a number of key opposition activists at other locations. In the ensuing weeks, these and other organizations were repeatedly raided and their staff interrogated. Since it is a criminal offense in Belarus to be involved in a non-registered organization and the authorities have not permitted most civil society groups to register, activists are at risk of prosecution.
Police and security forces also searched the premises of four independent media outlets and the homes of 12 journalists and confiscated their equipment. Belarus authorities also revoked the license of at least one radio station. Internet regulations adopted last year give the government more powers to clamp down on online sources.
"For years the state controlled the print and broadcast media, and online news, and nongovernmental organizations' websites are the only sources of independent information," said Sevortian. "Now, these sources are at risk."
Human Rights Watch called on the Belarusian government to:
- Conduct a thorough and impartial investigation into the events of December 19, 2010;
- Immediately release those who had not engaged in acts of violence;
- Ensure that all detainees have unimpeded and confidential access to counsel; and
- End the repression of lawyers and civil society.
Human Rights Watch and 130 other international and national NGOs and activists also called on the UN Human Rights Council to urge the government to take these steps.
"The government has created a serious human rights crisis in Belarus, and the UN Human Rights Council should not remain silent about it," said Sevortian. "A council resolution would send a strong message to the Belarus authorities that the ongoing crackdown must end."