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Belarus: End Arrests; Free Peaceful Protesters

Authorities Holding 7 Presidential Candidates, Hundreds of Others

The Belarusian authorities should immediately halt the arbitrary arrests of opposition leaders and supporters, secure the prompt release of all arbitrarily detained, and ensure the safety of those lawfully in custody, Human Rights Watch said today.

The authorities should conduct an independent and thorough investigation into the public disorder in Minsk that followed the December 19, 2010 presidential elections, analyze the police and security forces' role in the violence, and prosecute those responsible for wrongdoing, Human Rights Watch said.

"Belarusian authorities have a duty to ensure public order, but that duty needs to be carried out with respect for human rights and the rule of law," said Anna Sevortian, Russia office director for Human Rights Watch. "It cannot be a pretext for arbitrary arrests and punitive measures against the opposition."

Public demonstrations involving tens of thousands of protesters in Minsk's Independence Square started peacefully on December 19. However, after the Central Election Commission, the main governmental body supervising the elections, announced that incumbent Alexander Lukashenka had received 79.67 percent of the vote, some protesters turned to violence, clashed with police, and tried to storm the main governmental building in Minsk, news media reports said. Police responded by arresting and beating protesters, in some cases viciously.

According to media reports, at least 600 opposition activists, including opposition leaders and 7 presidential candidates, were arrested and remain in custody. Among them are several of Belarus's leading human rights defenders. About 150 of those detained were speedily tried in administrative courts on December 20, and each sentenced to 10 to 15 days of administrative detention, mainly for "hooliganism".

Five of the presidential candidates were injured during clashes with police. One of them, Vladimir Neklyaev, was taken to the hospital, having sustained serious head injuries. Witnesses had seen him being viciously beaten by men in special forces uniforms.

The people who described the events said that he was driven away from a hospital later that night by unknown men in civilian clothing, who wrapped him in a blanket and pushed him into a waiting car. His current medical condition and whereabouts remain unknown. Another presidential candidate, Vitaly Rymashevsky, was also reported to have been severely beaten.

"The authorities should immediately provide information about the whereabouts and well-being of Vladimir Neklyaev and ensure that he has proper medical care," Sevortian said. "They also should investigate the police use of force in response to violence by some protestors. Genuine questions need to be asked as to whether it was justified or excessive."

At about 3 a.m. on December 20, the office of the Minsk-based human rights organization Viasna was raided by about 15 plain clothed officers. The officers neither identified themselves nor presented a search warrant, and Viasna only learned later that they were from the Minsk regional police division.

They told staff members that they were conducting the search in connection with "suspected criminal activities." They confiscated all of the group's computers, documents, and materials, including those related to the 2010 election-monitoring project run jointly by Viasna and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee.

Ten staff members of the organization were arrested and are in police custody. The chairman of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, Aleh Gulak, was arrested on the night of December 19 as he left Independence Square, where he had been monitoring developments. He was released on the evening of December 20.

"Viasna is just one of many nongovernmental groups paralyzed by the Belarusian authorities in the aftermath of the elections," Sevortian said. "Since Viasna was actively involved in election-monitoring, the raid and the arrests raise concerns that the authorities were trying to prevent them from criticizing the elections."

Many independent observers, including the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the European Union, criticized the conduct of the election, including the lack of transparency during the vote count. Independent monitors also commented on difficulties they faced, including being required to observe the count from a distance of up to 10 meters. Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as websites of many independent nongovernmental organizations, were blocked after the polls closed.

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials require law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, to, as far as possible, apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. Whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials are required to use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. The legitimate objective should be achieved with minimal damage and injury, and with respect for the need to preserve human life.

President Alexander Lukashenka ran for a fourth term in the elections, which had been scheduled by parliament in September. He was first elected in 1994 and re-elected in 2001 and 2006, despite protests of election fraud from activists, international nongovernmental organizations, and concerned governments, such as those of the United States and most European Union member states.

In the period preceding the elections, the already dire situation for civil society and independent media in Belarus took a turn for the worse, with Belarusian authorities cracking down on the opposition. Many journalists and civil society activists faced harassment in the form of interrogations, detentions, arrests, and seizure of personal property.  Nongovernmental organizations faced unnecessary complexities in trying to comply with the country's registration process.

In May, authorities in over 20 cities raided apartments and confiscated computers from activists for the "Speak the Truth Campaign," begun in February 2010 to encourage public discussion about social problems. Leaders of the movement, including Neklyaev, the presidential candidate beaten on December 19, were detained for three days at that time on suspicion of disseminating false information.

In March the Justice Ministry had refused for the third time to register the Belarusian Assembly of Pro-democratic NGOs, citing procedural violations in its creation and alleging that the organization's name does not describe its activities. The assembly serves as an unofficial umbrella organization for more than 250 Belarusian nongovernmental groups and provides legal guidance and conducts advocacy on their behalf.

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