UN: Belarus Runs Campaign of Violence, Repression to Crush Dissent

GENEVA — A report by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights accuses the government of Belarus of running a campaign of violence and repression to crush political dissent and maintain its grip on power.

“Considering the range of human rights violations committed against the population of real or perceived political opponents in discriminatory fashion, the office’s report describes reasonable grounds to believe that the crime against humanity of persecution may have been committed,” said Christian Salazar Volkmann, director of the field operations and technical cooperation division at the OHCHR.

The report Volkmann presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council Wednesday examines all alleged human rights violations committed in Belarus related to the run-up to the 2020 presidential elections and its aftermath.

The report is based on information and evidence from first-hand interviews with 657 people supported by more than 5,400 items, as well as 229 written submissions from victims, witnesses and nongovernmental organizations.

Volkmann said information gathered last year “substantiates the scale and patterns of the violations” identified in previous reports and finds that since May 1, 2020, Belarus has “effectively deprived people in Belarus of their ability to exercise” their civic rights.

The 2020 election of incumbent Alexander Lukashenko to a sixth term in office was decried by international monitors as “neither free nor fair.” Lukashenko denied this.

In his presentation to the council, Volkmann said that opposition parties had been barred from participating in last month’s parliamentary elections, putting into question their ability to participate in next year’s presidential elections.

He said laws adopted or amended by Belarus since 2021 have been used “to oppress and punish real or perceived opponents.”

“In the course of 2023, several prominent human rights defenders, journalists and trade unionists were sentenced to long prison terms,” he said, noting that thousands of people continue to be arbitrarily arrested and detained for “having exercised their freedom of expression and/or assembly.”

“Since 2020, thousands of Belarusians have been subjected to cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment in detention facilities across Belarus,” he said.

The report documents cases in which torture has resulted in severe injuries and instances of sexual and gender-based violence, adding that “death and rape threats were widespread.”

It describes the horrific, punitive treatment and conditions under which political prisoners are subjected in state-run penal colonies.

Authors of the report say, “Information gathered regarding the lack of adequate medical care in the penal colonies is particularly alarming,” adding that at least two people died “in the custody of Belarusian authorities in 2023 due to medical negligence” and two additional prisoners have died this year.

The U.N. human rights office found widespread arbitrary arrests of children took place in 2020 and 2021, resulting in more than 50 politically motivated criminal trials in which the children lacked protections guaranteed under international law.

“OHCHR also found instances of ill-treatment and possibly torture of children,” it said.

Volkmann told the U.N. council that Belarusian authorities have removed children in supposedly “dangerous situations” from their parents in ways that seemed more focused on “pressuring and punishing parents than safeguarding the best interest of the child.”

He said children sometimes were left without care, taken to orphanages, or “parents were forced under duress to transfer the custody of their children to a relative or friend.”

He said the campaign of violence and repression has driven an estimated 300,000 Belarusians into exile since May 2020.

“It is currently not safe for those in exile to return to Belarus,” Volkmann said. “I therefore recommend that other member states continue to facilitate access to international refugee protection.”

He called on the government of Belarus “to immediately release all individuals arbitrarily detained and sentenced on politically motivated grounds.”

To that, Belarus Ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva Larysa Belskaya indignantly responded that “there are no political prisoners in Belarus.”

“Persons serving sentences have been convicted of specific crimes, including against national security,” she said. “The Belarus lawbreakers are treated equally regardless of whether they are favorites of foreign politicians or act in their interests.”

The ambassador accused Western governments of supporting activists who “fled the country, who failed to undermine the Belarusian state through an attempt at a covert revolution and participated in illegal anti-government actions and clashes with law enforcement officers in 2020.”

“Now, they broadcast extremist calls and plans to overthrow the legitimate authorities in an armed conflict in Belarus,” she said.

“The real situation in Belarus is radically different from the false picture painted by the report of the so-called group of OHCHR experts,” she said. “The focus of the state policy of Belarus will always be the strengthening of the well-being of the people and the protection of the interest of the Belarus state.”

Volkmann ended his presentation by calling for “prompt, effective, transparent and independent investigations into all past violations of international law occurring since May 2020” and for an end to impunity and accountability for perpetrators of crimes in Belarus.

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