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Journalists Katsiaryna Andreyeva, right, and Daria Chultsova embrace inside a defendants' cage in a court room in Minsk, Belarus, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021. © 2021 AP

(Berlin) – Belarusian authorities unleashed an unprecedented crackdown against civil society following peaceful countrywide protests in spring and summer 2020, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2022.

In 2021 Belarusian government viciously targeted political and civic activists, independent journalists, and human rights defenders, subjecting them to smear campaigns, politically motivated prosecutions, and ill-treatment in detention. By mid-November, at least 884 people were behind bars on bogus charges, according to leading Belarusian human rights group Viasna.

“Last year, Belarusian authorities carried out a merciless civil society purge,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Despite the shocking crackdown, rights defenders and journalists courageously continue their work, both on the ground and from exile.”

In the 752-page World Report 2022, its 32nd edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries. Executive Director Kenneth Roth challenges the conventional wisdom that autocracy is ascendent. In country after country, large numbers of people have recently taken to the streets, even at the risk of being arrested or shot, showing that the appeal of democracy remains strong. Meanwhile, autocrats are finding it more difficult to manipulate elections in their favor. Still, he says, democratic leaders must do a better job of meeting national and global challenges and of making sure that democracy delivers on its promised dividends.

Over the course of the year, Belarusian government doubled down on retaliating against human rights groups for their work. Human rights defenders and their family members faced repeated intrusive searches, arbitrary detention, inhumane detention conditions, beatings, interrogations, smear campaigns, and harassment.

Dozens of human rights defenders were jailed on trumped up criminal charges, including seven Viasna activists. In November, a court in Homel sentenced the head of Viasna’s local office, Leanid Sudalenka, and a volunteer, Tatsiana Lasitsa, to three and two and a half years in prison, respectively over “organizing and financing” activities “grossly violating public order.”

Between July and mid-November the authorities initiated liquidation proceedings against close to 300 groups working on a variety of human rights issues, including country’s most prominent rights organizations.

The Belarusian Association of Journalists documented over 100 cases of arbitrary detention of journalists in 2021. The authorities used excessive force when detaining media workers, and courts sentenced them to fines and administrative arrests. By November, four journalists had been sentenced to prison and at least 26 media workers remained behind bars on bogus criminal charges in retaliation for reporting on public protests and exposing abuses.

The authorities targeted people for wearing or exhibiting the white-red-white stripe pattern associated with the protest movement. Law enforcement detained people arbitrarily, at times with excessive force. Hundreds faced administrative fines, administrative arrests, and criminal charges.

The authorities also continued to prosecute political opposition members and their supporters detained before and after the 2020 presidential elections.

The Justice Ministry arbitrarily revoked the licenses of at least 32 attorneys representing jailed political opposition leaders and peaceful protesters in trumped-up criminal cases. Lawyers also faced politically motivated criminal and administrative charges, searches, and harassment.

In May, the European Union imposed sanctions on Belarus after Belarusian authorities forced a Ryanair plane to land in Minsk and arrested a prominent opposition activist, Roman Protasevich, and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega. In retaliation, Belarusian authorities actively enabled migrants from the Middle East to travel to Belarus by facilitating tourist visas, and allowing them to travel to the border area with Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, but not allowing them to return to Minsk.

As a result, thousands of people were stuck in limbo in the border areas in circumstances that violate their rights and put their lives at risk. Pushed back from European borders, many were detained by Belarusian border guards, ill-treated, and coerced to try to cross again. People spent several days or weeks in the open on the border, without shelter or access to basic humanitarian services, including food and water, resulting in deaths, hypothermia, and other sickness and injuries. The EU and its member states share responsibility with Belarus for the abusive treatment of those trapped in these circumstances.

“Belarusian authorities should stop all abuse of migrants and allow access for humanitarian organizations to assist people in need,” Williamson said.” “For anyone wanting to seek asylum in Belarus, the Belarusian authorities should fairly examine their claims and they should investigate abuses against migrants by Belarusian border guards, holding those responsible to account.”

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