7 April, 2022
by Sam Biden, Global Leadership Fellow
Belarus government structure
Prior to 1994, the concept of open and accountable government existed in Belarus, but has since been dramatically narrowed. After President Alexander Lukashenko was elected in 1994, the powers of the state were narrowed from their independent competent authorities to a more direct system under President Lukashenko himself. In 1996 and 2004, constitutional amendments were made which transferred the prerogatives of the legislative branch to the President, the judicial branch to the executive and the two-term limit of the presidency was redacted. This was worsened in 2011 after the creation of the ‘Investigative Committee’. This committee only reports directly to the President and allows for the executive branch to have total control over state investigations without independent scrutiny.
The new reporting system allows for a total monopoly over the accountability mechanisms of the state, essentially creating a dogmatic approach to governance that is immune from internal criticism. In a typical sovereign system, a state will have multiple governing bodies such as the UK structure of the legislature, executive and judiciary. The legislature is comprised of both Houses and the Crown, the executive formulates and implements national policy, while the judiciary ensures accountability for not just citizens but also the compatibility of legislation in a variety of areas, especially human rights. The Belarusian system allows for none of this, creating a system of disregarded accountability mechanisms that only favour the political voice of the head of state.
After the 2020 elections, President Lukashenko suspiciously won his 6th consecutive term in office. The election results have been highly contested, claims have gone so far as to say it was rigged. In support of this claim, two opposition candidates were jailed while a third was forced to flee the state. Alongside this, no independent observers were allowed any role in the legitimacy assessments of the election. While the results claimed President Lukashenko had received 80% of votes and was therefore victorious, claims from opposing candidate Ms Tikhanovskaya stated she actually earned at least 60% of the votes. Ms Tikhanovskaya was later forced to flee Belarus after being detained for several hours when she made inquiries about the election with the relevant authorities.
Following the controversy, large scale peaceful protests erupted within the state as tens of thousands of dissatisfied voters rallied together. In response, at least 7 Belarusian state security forces were deployed as a response to the peaceful protests. Between August 9-14th, over 13,500 people were arrested and detained for their involvement in the peaceful protests. Many of these detainees were pushed through the criminal system abruptly, with some trials only lasting a few minutes. The Investigative Committee for Belarus received over 5000 complaints of ill-treatment of detainees, yet they rejected every claim. This body is responsible for all pre-trial criminal proceedings and any accusations that come with this, yet they failed in their duties to handle accusations promptly and correctly with such arbitrary dismissals. The protestor crackdown continued, resulting in the prosecution of those detained based almost solely on their political opposition.
2. Media Outlets
Journalists and their media outlets were the next targets of the dictator-style government. In September 2020, authorities began to press charges against journalists, lawyers, human rights advocates and members of the opposing Coordination Council, an NGO established to restore democracy after the election. On May 23rd, Belarusian authorities arrested Roman Protasevich, the former editor-in-chief of NEXTA, a Belarusian media outlet. Later that same year, the government passed a series of legislative amendments to the Law on Mass Events and the Law on Mass Media. These new amendments would ban journalists from reporting on ‘unauthorized’ protests altogether. The amendments also extended into counter-terrorism. New labels such as “extremists” and acts such as “extremist activities and materials” were introduced to criminalise journalists for speaking out. These new criminal matters carried a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
By May 2021, Belarusian authorities had cracked down against all remaining independent mass media outlets, including Tut.by, a popular news portal. A criminal case was opened against Tut.by accusing them of tax fraud, resulting in the detaining of 15 journalists. 3 months later, Tut.by’s websites, social media and logos were declared as “extremist materials” and criminalised. A month prior, three more media websites were shut down for the same reasons, including Nasha Niva, one of the oldest running media outlets in Belarus. Nasha Niva’s website is back up as of 2022. In November 2021, BelePAN and Belsat TV were declared “extremist” organisations, followed by Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty a month later. By the end of 2021, over 170 telegram channels and 13 media outlets were declared to be “extremist”. This resulted in the arrest of 32 journalists from 146 raids by Belarusian authorities.
3. Human Rights Advocates
Between September 2020 and July 2021, seven members of Viasna, an NGO aimed at helping victims of political repression, were arrested and charged as extremists. In July 2021, 50 raids took place at the homes and offices of human rights advocates, resulting in 20 people being arbitrarily detained and trialled. By October 2021, a total of 270 NGOs had been shut down by the Belarusian authorities, resulting in a monopoly over the discussion of human rights that was entirely controlled by the Belarusian Government. When asked about the crackdown, President Lukashenko stated that “we’ll massacre all the scum that you [The West] have been financing”. This response demonstrates significant ill-intent towards those who are advocating for a safe state and subsequently translated into a plethora of human rights violations.
Human Rights violations
1. Unnecessary and disproportionate use of force
Disproportionate use of force was committed by a wide array of government actors, including; the Military, Special Purpose Police Detachment, Anti-terrorism units and the KGB. Other forces wore no insignias or identifiable logos when attending the protests. All interviewees told the OHCHR that they witnessed riot police beating protesters and passersby randomly and without any justification. They also stopped cars travelling in Minsk and dragged civilians from them, beating them in the street for supposed involvement in the protests. Many of the people who were attacked by these forces lost consciousness completely, medical assessments concluded that a lot of injuries were consistent with police batons, leaving dark bruises on the victims.
A total of 26 first-hand accounts and over 1,000 testimonies were given to the OHCHR. All of these were formally identified as resulting from disproportionate force against the protesters. The forces responsible claim that the dispersal of the protests was in the pursuit of public order, therefore their use of force was justified. In direct contrast to this, all civilian testimonies and verified information given to the OHCHR show that the protests were overwhelmingly peaceful. Alongside this, the OHCHR concludes that the disproportionate use of force was not used to enforce public order, but to suppress the expression of dissent regarding the election results.
2. Arbitrary arrest and detention
Arbitrary arrest and detention are prohibited under international law and can be found pursuant to Article 9 ICCPR. The arbitrary element relates to inappropriateness, injustice, poor due process and the tests of reasonableness, necessity and proportionality. These must all be satisfied in order for the Article to not be engaged. The Article further restricts arrest or detention from being a punishment for the legitimate exercising of freedoms, such as association and assembly.
The OHCHR found that between May 2020-2021, over 37,000 people were victims of arbitrary arrest and detention. Within a 5 day period in August 2020, over a third of these arrests were made. These took place in over 100 cities, most notably in Minsk, Brest, Grodno and Vitebsk. The criminal charges pressed against 92% of these now prisoners were made under the Code of Administrative Offences. Specifically, Article 23.34 allows for the arrest of anyone for participation in “unauthorized mass events”.
Many of the detainees were denied many of the procedural safeguards guaranteed to them through international law. Some of these issues were; they were not informed of the reasons for their arrest nor of the charges against them, were not able to communicate with their relatives who were often denied information about their whereabouts, were mostly denied medical assistance and were not provided legal assistance with denial of access to lawyers. These flagrant denials of due process only emphasize the unlawful nature of the arrests in the first place.
3. Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
As an absolute prohibition of international law, freedom from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment cannot be derogated from. It can be found primarily in Article 7 ICCPR.
Many of those detained between the 9-14th of August 2020 were subjected to long and repeated beatings during both transport and holding. They were made to run from police vehicles and were beaten when forced to run through safety corridors set up to allow for people to leave the protests. During holding, many of these detainees were made to stand facing the wall and sit on their knees and elbows with their hands tied for hours without any access to food, water or medical assistance. Requests for food, water and medical aid were denied and those who protested this were beaten into compliance. Electric tasers were used as a method of ensuring compliance, even going so far as to use these tasers on already painful areas of the detainees from earlier beatings, causing extreme pain and discomfort for many.
An examination of 50 cases was presented by the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims to the OHCHR of which every case showed serious evidence of violations of Article 7. Alongside these examinations, 1500 randomly selected former detainees were asked to give testimony regarding their treatment. Their testimonies further added verification to the mounting evidence is serious mistreatment during custody. In total, 636 of the analysed claims of torture were substantiated by Viasna. This shows not just isolated incidents of mistreatment, but a gross systemic pattern of them that specifically targeted the political opposition.
4. Failure to investigate violations
Article 2 of the ICCPR says States have a legal duty to investigate any claims of human rights violations within their effective territory, this must be supplemented by effective remedies such as judicial intervention.
The OHCHR spoke to a number of people who had submitted formal reports of mistreatment, including torture, to the relevant authorities. All individuals they spoke to were informed that their complaints had been dismissed without any genuine reason being given. Many of these victims were initially afraid to lodge these complaints and the actions that followed showed this fear was justified. In a number of cases, those who complained were either met with reprisals or given administrative and criminal charges against them for even making such a claim.
Belarusian government officials worsened this dilemma. The Deputy Minister of the Interior Aleksander Barsukov, publicly denied that any of the forces at the protest had engaged in any form of mistreatment. Shortly after, the head of the International Legal Department of the Investigative Committee, Mikhail Vavulo, informed the OHCHR that because no violations had been committed by any of the security forces that there was no need for them to open an independent investigation. President Lukashenko added more fuel to the fire when he admitted claims of torture had taken place, but then supplemented this statement by saying “police officers had been beaten up too” as if this is some form of justification.
With all evidence considered, the actions of the Belarusian security forces amount to a denial of not only the rights to freedom of association and assembly but also freedom from torture, free speech, the right to due process and effective remedies and demonstrates failures of the national accountability mechanisms. These series of acts can only amount to flagrant violations of fundamental liberties as even at the most basic level, the tests of necessity and proportionality were extended far beyond what is reasonable. This leads to what is a horrific misreading of Belarus’ sovereign right to maintain public order.