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Police in Minsk carry documents and computers out of the office of the Belarusian Association of Journalists on February 16, 2021, as Andrei Bastunets, the head of the organization, looks on. © 2021 AP Photo

(Berlin) – Belarusian law enforcement officials carried out a nationwide wave of raids targeting human rights defenders and journalists on February 16, 2021, rounding up at least 40 people and searching their homes and offices, Human Rights Watch said today. Many of those targeted have documented or reported on ongoing mass protests or provided assistance to people in custody on politically motivated charges and to their families.

The Belarusian Investigative Committee, a law enforcement agency responsible for criminal investigations, stated that the searches had targeted groups “positioning themselves as human rights organizations,” with the stated purpose of “establishing the circumstances of the financing of the protests.” The raids are part of a criminal investigation under art. 342 of the Belarus Criminal Сode, organization and/or participation in activities that grossly violate public order, the agency said.

“These raids are part of a blatant intimidation campaign,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Belarusian authorities are targeting human rights defenders and independent journalists, apparently trying to eviscerate what’s left of Belarus’ civil society.”

The raids took place a week before the February 22 start of the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, where the crackdown in Belarus in the wake of the August 9, 2020 presidential election is on the agenda.

Human Rights Council members should adopt a resolution at the upcoming session condemning the abuses committed since the August presidential election, providing for robust monitoring and reporting on Belarus and calling for those responsible for violations to be held accountable, Human Rights Watch said.

The police raids began in the early hours of February 16 and continued throughout the day. Among those searched and detained were dozens of human rights defenders, journalists, and members of independent trade unions from Minsk, Vitsebsk, Homyel, Mazyr, Mahiliou, and other places. Groups whose offices were raided include Viasna Human Rights Centre, the Belarusian Association of Journalists, Barys Zvozskau Belarusian Human Rights House, and Belarus Solidarity Foundation.

Most of the activists and journalists rounded up were released. Several are still believed by their colleagues to be in custody as they have not been able to make contact with them.

During the searches, law enforcement agents confiscated equipment, including cameras, memory sticks, hard drives, and laptops, as well as bank cards, documents, and cash.

“They took our equipment to prevent us from filming, to scare us, and to scare others,” a journalist whose house was searched told Human Rights Watch. The journalist said that during the three-hour search of her home, police confiscated her camera, laptop, three hard drives, and all of her bank cards.

The raids began at around 7 a.m. in Minsk, at the apartment of Barys Haretski, press secretary of the Belarusian Association of Journalists. He wrote on social media that the police were at his front door. He later said on the organization’s Telegram channel that when he opened the door, the police told him to put his hands behind his head and proceeded to search his home thoroughly, including the trash cans and the refrigerator. After a three-hour search, the authorities confiscated his laptop, two phones, and some money.

The authorities also searched the rented apartment in Homyel of Andrej Stryzhak, co-founder of the Belarus Solidarity Foundation, a fundraising initiative to support families in which the breadwinner had lost their income as a result of their protest activities. They also searched the apartments belonging to Strizhak’s parents in Rechytsa, and the parents of his former wife, Yauhenia Parashchanka, who is the press-secretary of the Barys Zvozskau Belarusian Human Rights House. They confiscated Strizhak’s parents’ hard drive and a cell phone, and Parashchanka told media that the police confiscated almost all of her parents’ savings in cash and took their bank cards, which they use to get their pensions.

Police also searched the office of the Belarusian Association of Journalists and held its chairman, Andrei Bastunets, for the duration of the search; the Minsk and Mahiliou offices of the Viasna Human Rights Centre; and the homes of Viasna’s chairman, Ales Bialiatski; the group’s lawyer, Pavel Sapelka; the coordinator of the Campaign against the Death Penalty, Andrei Paluda, and others.

In some instances, those conducting the searches used force or intimidation. The police broke open the front door of the apartment of a Viasna human rights defender, Dzmitry Salauyou. When searching the house of Arsenyi Bastunets, Andrei Bastunets’ son, eight police officers, one of them armed, told him to face the wall and told his girlfriend to lie face down on the floor.

Belarusian authorities unleashed a sweeping crackdown on peaceful protesters and their supporters in the wake of the presidential election. The authorities jailed dozens of political opposition figures including presidential candidates, civic activists, and human rights defenders. Journalists have faced detention, ill-treatment, fines, and trumped-up charges, and at least 11 are currently behind bars in connection with the ongoing protests. Two journalists, Darya Chultsova and Katsiaryna Andreyeva, are on trial on charges of “grossly violating public order” in connection with their reporting about the protests. If convicted, they face up to three years in prison.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) issued a report on November 5 concluding that the Belarus authorities committed “massive and systemic” human rights violations before and in the aftermath of the presidential election and calling, among other things, for those responsible for torture and other abuses to be brought to justice.

“Belarusian authorities on February 16 escalated their brutal crackdown on human rights and their defenders,” Williamson said. “Strong action is needed in Geneva to stop this campaign and begin to restore fundamental freedoms in the country.”

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