Intersessional meeting of the Human Rights Council
Geneva, 4 December 2020
I regret to report that since the Council’s urgent debate on Belarus in September, there has been no improvement in the human rights situation in the country. On the contrary, recent weeks have seen continued deterioration, particularly with respect to the right of peaceful assembly.
It is reported that since 9 August, more than 27,000 people have been arrested. In the last month, hundreds of people continued to be arrested each week during the demonstrations – with reportedly around 1,000 people on 8 November, and 700 on 15 November, while allegations of injuries during dispersals and of ill-treatment during arrests continued to emerge. Senior citizens reportedly have also been arrested during the pensioners’ peaceful weekly marches. Four days ago, on 30 November, almost 20 persons were arrested during their march.
The penalties imposed on protestors appear to be growing more severe. Until recently, most of the arrested protesters faced administrative charges, and were sentenced to fines or detention for up to 15 days. In recent weeks, increasing numbers of demonstrators have been charged under various articles of the Criminal Code, which sometimes entail heavy prison sentences.
For example, following the peaceful march on 1 November, a government body, the Investigative Committee, announced that 231 people were being treated as suspects for “organization and active participation in actions that grossly violate public order” – a criminal charge which can lead to up to three years in prison.
Overall, in the context of the elections, over 900 people have reportedly been treated as suspects in criminal cases. Besides protesters, they include opposition presidential candidates, supporters of the opposition, journalists, bloggers, lawyers, and human rights defenders. Many remain in detention.
I am also deeply concerned about use of force violations by the security forces. As the Council is aware, authorities should facilitate peaceful assemblies, and the use of force during protests should always be exceptional, proportionate and a measure of last resort. Even when there are isolated acts of violence by some participants, the entire assembly should not be considered as losing its peaceful character.
However, our monitoring and analysis of demonstrations since 9 August indicates that, although participants were overwhelmingly peaceful, they were systematically, and in most cases, violently dispersed, including through the use of tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets and stun grenades, and unnecessary or disproportionate use of force. I note with concern that at least four persons lost their lives in the context of the protests. Numerous accounts describe demonstrators and passers-by being randomly chased, kicked and severely beaten with batons during the dispersal of rallies. We also have multiple and credible reports of people beaten by members of the security forces during and after their transport to police stations or detention centres. If confirmed, such incidents would constitute ill-treatment and, in some cases, may amount to torture.
Moreover, masked men, without insignia or identification, have frequently taken part in the dispersal of protests, alongside riot police. Unmarked vehicles are reportedly often used to transport people who have been seized or arrested. This heightens a climate of fear and atmosphere of lawlessness and impunity.
I am alarmed by the numerous allegations of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in custody, with up to 2,000 complaints reportedly lodged by the end of October. We have no information on any outcome of investigations into these allegations. I understand, from organizations providing support to victims, that many victims are reluctant to come forward for fear of reprisals.
Many people who have been detained have reported being held in overcrowded cells, without adequate ventilation, despite the risks linked to the COVID-19 pandemic; denied food, water, access to the toilet and medical treatment. They have further reported violent and random beatings, as well as acts of humiliation, insults and threats.
Reports indicate that in numerous cases of arrests, due process and fair trial rights were not respected, particularly the rights of a person to be informed of the reason for arrest, be promptly brought before a judge, seek legal counsel and receive medical assistance; and the right to notify relatives.
I deplore the continuing harassment and arrests of many human rights defenders and journalists in the context of the protests. Human rights defenders have been repeatedly arrested and two are detained, facing criminal charges punishable by years in prison. The arrests of 373 journalists have been documented since August. . Six journalists are currently in detention. Three of them face criminal charges and prison sentences.
Lawyers associated with the opposition, or acting as counsel in cases involving human rights violations, are also under pressure. Some face criminal charges, and others were disbarred.
I am also concerned about disciplinary sanctions imposed on teachers and students, and allegations that people who participated in the protests are threatened with being stripped of their parental rights.
It is urgent that the Government of Belarus puts an end to ongoing human rights violations. In particular, I call on the Government:
- To immediately release all those unlawfully or arbitrarily detained for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and participation;
- To respect the right of peaceful assembly, and cease the violent dispersal of peaceful assemblies and judicial retaliation against organizers and participants;
- To create an enabling environment for all individuals, human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers to participate in public affairs and carry out their activities safely and freely;
- To ensure that prompt, thorough, independent, transparent and impartial investigations are conducted into all allegations of torture and other human rights violations, including the deaths of at least four persons in the context of the protests; to hold perpetrators to account; and to provide justice truth and reparations to victims and their families;
I further call on the Government to take steps towards a genuine, respectful and inclusive national dialogue.
Regrettably, a technical team from my Office in Geneva has not been granted access to Belarus for monitoring purposes. We will nevertheless continue remote monitoring. As requested by this Council, I will submit a comprehensive report to its 46th session, with recommendations aiming to support strengthening human rights and the rule of law, and developing accountable institutions.
Thank you Madam President.