At the forty-ninth session of the UN Human Rights Council (28 February — 1 April 2022), a comprehensive report on the human rights situation in Belarus ahead of the 2020 presidential election and beyond was presented. The report covered the period from 1 May 2020 to 31 December 2021.
In the report, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights provided an overview of the human rights situation in Belarus, including arbitrary detention, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, the failure to effectively investigate allegations of such violations and the lack of respect for due process and the right to a fair trial.
The report is mainly based on information obtained through 145 interviews with a wide range of victims, witnesses, lawyers, representatives of non-governmental organizations and other stakeholders met in person or communicated to them remotely.
Due diligence was exercised in assessing the credibility and reliability of all sources, consent was obtained from sources, and all necessary measures were taken to protect confidentiality.
The UN Human Rights Council has adopted a resolution on the human rights situation in Belarus. The Council urged the Belarusian authorities to cooperate fully with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and regretted that the Government of Belarus had refused the High Commissioner’s request to grant access to a group of experts to the territory of Belarus.
The Council extended the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights for one year and instructed him to continue to monitor and report on the situation of human rights, to make a comprehensive study of all alleged human rights violations committed in Belarus since 1 May 2020 in the run-up to and after the 2020 presidential elections, including possible gender aspects of such violations, to establish the facts and circumstances surrounding the alleged violations, and to collect, consolidate, preserve Following the monitoring, prepare an interim oral update report to the Human Rights Council at its fifty-first session and a comprehensive written report at its fifty-second session.
In favour (22): Argentina, Benin, Brazil, Finland, France, Gambia, Germany, Honduras, Japan, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malawi, Marshall Islands, Mexico, Montenegro, Netherlands, Paraguay, Poland, Republic of Korea, Ukraine, United Kingdom and United States.
Against (6): Bolivia, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Russian Federation and Venezuela.
Abstentions (19): Armenia, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Libya, Malaysia, Mauritania, Namibia, Nepal, Pakistan, Qatar, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan.
Summary of the report:
Following the decision of Lukashenko to run for a new term, there were protests across the country that were violently dispersed by the police, and the human rights situation in Belarus deteriorated markedly.
The pre-election period was characterized by repressions against activists, human rights activists, NGOs and journalists; a number of opposition candidates were arbitrarily detained on the eve of the election. After the election, hundreds of thousands of people turned out at rallies to express their disagreement with the widely disputed results.
Representing the largest anti-government movement in the history of Belarus, the protests — including women’s marches — took place in all six regions and united people from all walks of life, men, women, children, pensioners and students, often expressing their resistance by carrying white-red-white flags and wearing white ribbons. The government responded with massive and brutal repression.
In an attempt to stop the protests from spreading, security forces blocked major roads leading to Minsk, and Internet access was blocked across the country for at least 61 hours.
Various state security forces were involved in responding to the protests, including police officers, the Special Purpose Police Unit (OMON), the special anti-terrorist unit Almaz, the Main Department for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption (GUBOPiK), internal troops, the Belarusian State Security Committee (KGB), and the presidential security service. People without insignia, wearing balaclavas, also took part in the violent dispersal of the protests, creating an atmosphere of fear and lawlessness.
The security forces made no attempt to communicate with the protesters or give appropriate warnings before using water cannons, shooting rubber bullets or using stun grenades to forcefully disperse the crowd.
The riot police indiscriminately beat protesters and bystanders with batons during the dispersal. According to several witnesses, in Minsk and other cities the security forces stopped cars, pushed people out of them, beat them, and then detained them. Several people were beaten until they lost consciousness. Medical examinations recorded bruises indicative of beatings with truncheons. In most cases, these injuries were on the back of the victims’ bodies, indicating that they were not confronted by security forces at the time of the blows.
The widespread use of stun grenades against demonstrators was documented. In several documented cases, security forces threw or launched stun grenades directly at people, inflicting serious, life-threatening injuries.
Injuries resulting from the use of force included bruises to the torso, buttocks and rear surface of the legs, head injuries (such as brain contusion), concussion, traumatic wounds, fractures and burns, tympanic membrane perforations due to acoustic trauma and eye injuries. More severe injuries included multiple organ damage from rubber-coated steel bullets and internal organ damage from fragmentation fragments from high-explosive grenades and burns from explosions.
Information was confirmed concerning at least three deaths, allegedly the result of unjustified or disproportionate use of force during the protests. These included Alexander Taraikovsky (shot in the chest, allegedly with a rubber bullet, in Minsk on 10 August); Alexander Vikhor (died in custody in Gomel on 12 August); and Gennady Shutov (allegedly shot in the head by a plainclothes policeman in Brest on 11 August and died in hospital on 19 August). The authorities denied responsibility for these murders, but did not conduct an effective investigation.
The authorities claim that the decision to disperse the protests was made in order to maintain public order. However, no facts have been established indicating that the protests as such were violent or caused serious and prolonged disturbances of the kind that would justify a forced dispersal. Rather, the disproportionate force was aimed at generally suppressing expressions of dissent, intimidating the population, and shielding the incumbent government from criticism, which are not legitimate goals.
While it is impossible to determine the exact number of people subjected to violence by state authorities, it can be reasonably estimated in the thousands. The nature of the response of the security forces also violated the freedom of speech and freedom of peaceful assembly of hundreds of thousands of Belarusians.
There is sufficient reason to believe that the decision to use force against peaceful protesters was taken at a high level in the government and was carried out with a high degree of coordination. On July 28, 2020, the president instructed the head of the Minsk riot police, Dzmitry Balaba, to deal harshly with the protesters. On August 6th Minister of Internal Affairs Yury Karayev met with the heads of regional police departments and, referring to the orders of the commander-in-chief and threatening with consequences in case of their non-fulfillment, instructed them to prevent people from gathering and detain them. The leadership of the GUBOPIК assigned officers to “assault groups”, together with the military, to suppress the protests. On 11 August the deputy head of Minsk regional police ordered to use physical force and special means, as well as to beat and detain anyone who was “talking on the phone” or standing in a group of five people “at a bus stop.
It is established that at least 37,000 people were arbitrarily arrested and detained between May 2020 and May 2021; some 13,500 people (11,800 men, 1,000 women and 700 children) were arrested between August 9 and 14 alone. During these six days, arrests were made in more than 100 cities, towns and villages throughout Belarus, 4,616 in Minsk alone. In the rest of the country: more than 860 arrests were made in Brest, more than 850 in Grodno, about 800 in Vitebsk, about 700 in Mogilev and about 650 in Gomel.
The massive number of arrests and detentions in response to peaceful protests reached an unprecedented scale for Belarus. Victims said that during this time they were regularly severely beaten and subjected to torture and other forms of ill-treatment. They were not allowed to read the police reports. Those who demanded to read them or refused to sign them were beaten or threatened, including with rape.
Detainees between 9 and 14 August were subjected to long and repeated beatings with truncheons during transportation in security force vehicles (trolley car), police stations and detention facilities; forced to run from cars to buildings past a line of security forces, who beat them with truncheons as they passed (“corridors”); and forced to remain in stressful positions for hours in the courtyards and corridors of police stations and detention facilities, such as facing the wall, kneeling and elbowing, or lying face down on the ground for hours with their hands tied behind their backs.
Pleas for medical assistance, water, food, and access to the toilet were largely ignored, and detainees were often beaten to discourage them from complaining. Those who were already visibly injured continued to be beaten or even electroshocked, often on damaged and swollen parts of the body, which caused particularly excruciating pain.
The degree and severity of ill-treatment was often determined by law enforcement officers on the basis of people’s appearance or the color marks and symbols placed on their bodies by security forces at the time of arrest. Detainees were also tortured or abused to force them to unlock their cell phones or provide passwords or other information.
Men were found to have been raped and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence were used against men and women in detention. Male detainees reported anal penetration with truncheons, which amounted to rape, as well as being grabbed by their genitals or having their genitals twisted. Injuries documented by medics corroborate accounts of such penetrations. Medical records also show traumatic injuries to the male genitals, including injuries, multiple abrasions and contusions.
Detainees were held in inhumane conditions, despite precautions from COVID-19, they were transported in overcrowded and unventilated security vehicles, thrown on top of each other, or locked together in metal compartments (cups) designed for one detainee. Detainees in Okrestino and Zhodino stated that 30 to 50 people were placed in cells designed for seven or eight people, without proper ventilation or sanitation, and were given one bottle of water to share with everyone. In addition, they were denied food for long periods of time and could not sleep or lie down due to lack of beds or space. They had to listen to the screams of those who were beaten in neighboring cells or corridors.
There are sufficient grounds to believe that the actions committed during the detention by the Belarusian security forces in Minsk and other cities between August 9 and 14, 2020, qualify as torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
International law establishes a legal obligation on states to investigate, prosecute and punish acts of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and provide victims with effective remedies and reparations. But there are no known criminal charges, indictments, or convictions for acts of violence by security forces against protesters or detainees.
All complaints were dismissed. Many victims were afraid to file complaints, and some victims who did file said they were subsequently subjected to reprisals. In some cases criminal and administrative charges were pressed against complainants for participating in protests after they filed complaints. Others stated that they had been dissuaded from filing a complaint after their release.
On August 26, 2021, the Investigative Committee announced that it had completed its review of about 5,000 abuse complaints received in the summer/fall of 2020, all of which were dismissed as “unconfirmed,” and the allegations of abuse of power, torture, and sexual assault were also unconfirmed. The committee also called the complainants “drunks,” “liars,” and people with criminal records who thought they could avoid prosecution by filing a complaint.
In a further effort to intimidate and suppress political opposition and dissent, tens of thousands of people were charged with Article 23.34 and other administrative offenses, and hundreds were charged with criminal offenses.
From August 9−14, “conveyor belt” summary administrative trials were held in detention facilities in closed hearings that lacked basic procedural safeguards and — according to the defendants — often lasted only a few minutes. With few exceptions, judges ignored defendants, despite visible injuries, when they tried to claim that they had been tortured or ill-treated.
The inspection noted numerous violations of the rights to due process and fair trial in both administrative and criminal cases. Access of lawyers to their clients was hindered, defendants were not able to talk to their lawyers in confidence, and lawyers were denied adequate access to case files or sufficient time to consult and prepare their defense. Prosecution witnesses often testified anonymously via Skype.
In criminal cases, particularly those of high-ranking dissidents, hearings were closed, and defense attorneys were forced to sign non-disclosure agreements. Lawyers who defended such cases or spoke out about human rights violations and the lack of rule of law or referred cases to UN human rights mechanisms were imprisoned, harassed and intimidated, and faced disbarment and disciplinary sanctions. Since the election and as of November 2021, 36 attorneys have had their licenses revoked, either through revocation of license or loss of certification, under procedures facilitated by the Bar Association’s lack of independence and the Ministry of Justice’s extensive control over the legal profession. Amendments to the Lawyers and Lawyers Act, which went into effect in November 2021, further expanded the Ministry’s authority in this area. The intimidation and punishment of independent lawyers has a serious chilling effect on the legal profession and effectively denies victims of human rights violations the right to a fair trial and access to justice.
By May 2021, the authorities cracked down on the remaining independent media. On May 18, the website of Tut. by, a popular online news portal, was blocked, a criminal case was opened against the media company for tax fraud, and 15 journalists were detained. On August 13, its websites, social media sites, and logos were declared “extremist materials.” On July 8, authorities blocked three news sites, including Nasha Niva, one of the oldest media outlets in Belarus, conducted more than 20 searches, and arrested 11 journalists.
BelaPAN news agency and Belsat TV were declared “extremist” organizations in November, as was Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in December. By the end of 2021, 170 Telegram channels and 13 media outlets were also deemed “extremist,” 146 searches were conducted in the offices and homes of journalists, and 32 journalists were detained. In October GUBOPIK warned that subscription to such channel entails criminal responsibility for participation in “extremist formation.
By May 2021, some 37,000 people had been arrested and detained in Belarus in connection with the elections, including some 13,500 between August 9 and 14, 2020. These arrests and detentions, accompanied by unlawful use of force that caused serious bodily injury and harm to health, and accompanied by torture and ill-treatment, including rape, were massive in nature and were intended to pressure the population, suppress dissent and public expressions of opposition to the incumbent president.
On July 14, 2021, 50 searches were conducted in the offices and homes of human rights defenders and 20 people were detained. By October 2021, some 270 non-governmental organizations, including the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, the oldest human rights organization in Belarus, were shut down. This appears to be the result of a concerted effort to eliminate any credible independent human rights activity to combat violations and impunity in Belarus.
By the end of 2021, 969 people (858 men and 111 women) were in prison on politically motivated charges. Of those convicted, several received prison sentences of 10 years or more: for example, Maria Kolesnikova was sentenced to 11 years, while opposition leaders Sergei Tikhanovsky, Nikolai Statkevich and Igor Losik were sentenced to 18, 14 and 15 years, respectively.
After the election, at least 100,000 people sought safety abroad, mostly in other European countries. In many cases, those interviewed expressed fears that their family members who remained at home were being harassed or intimidated by the authorities.
On September 24, 2021, the High Commissioner noted that the government’s response to the disputed elections in Belarus was primarily aimed at suppressing criticism and dissent against government policy, not at protecting public order. This conclusion was confirmed by the expert examination, which also pointed to an active policy of preventing truth, justice and accountability for violations committed.
Given the scale and nature of the violations identified in the report, their widespread and systematic nature, and the evidence of official policy, awareness and guidance regarding their collective execution by multiple government agencies, particularly with respect to mass arbitrary detentions, there is sufficient evidence to warrant further evaluation of the available evidence in terms of applicable international criminal law.
The Human Rights Council stressed the need for accountability for human rights violations in Belarus and requested the High Commissioner to promote accountability for perpetrators and justice for victims.
Criminal investigations into human rights violations and potential international crimes committed in Belarus have been opened in at least four competent jurisdictions outside of Belarus. In this regard, it is crucial to continue efforts to collect, document and preserve evidence of violations in order to facilitate future accountability processes.