Belarus has handed lengthy prison terms to leading opposition figures and rights activists as the UN Human Rights Council prepares to debate the situation in the country later this month.
Nobel peace prize winner Ales Bialiatski was sentenced to ten years in prison on Friday by a court in his native Belarus as part of President Alexander Lukashenko’s ongoing crackdown on dissent.
Bialiatski and three co-defendants from his organisation Viasna (Spring), Belarus’s most prominent human rights groups, were charged with financing protests and smuggling money, in what has been denounced as a “sham trial”.
The 60-year-old activist was awarded the Nobel prize in October 2022 for his work promoting human rights and democracy in the authoritarian country. He was arrested in 2021 as part of President Lukashenko’s brutal purge of opponents following pro-democracy protests in 2020.
The situation in Belarus will be scrutinised at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on 22 March, when UN high commissioner for human rights Volker Türk is due to deliver a report on the human rights situation in the country.
Despite its requests, the UN human rights office has not been allowed into the country to assess the situation since the high commissioner’s investigation was mandated following the 2020 presidential election.
Atmosphere of fear
Bialiatski was arrested after a raid on Viasna following the protests against Lukashenko’s 30-year rule in 2020, during which demonstrators were met with police brutality while critics of Lukashenko were arrested and jailed.
Bialiatski has been detained for over 20 months in what colleagues from Viasna, which Bialiatski co-founded in 1996, described as inhumane conditions. Bialiatski has denied the charges against him, calling them politically motivated.
The other three men convicted by the court in Minsk were Valentin Stefanovich, who was sentenced to nine years, Vladimir Labkovich, who was sentenced to seven years, and Dmitry Solovyov, who was tried in absentia and sentenced to eight years. All three had pleaded not guilty.
The trial of Viasna members came just days before exiled Belarusian leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison on Monday for crimes including high treason and attempts to seize power.
Speaking to Geneva Solutions, Viasna member Natallia Satsunkevich said her colleagues were being punished for “political reasons”.
“We demand that our colleagues are released right now,” she said. “They did not commit any crimes. They are being punished for their human rights work.”
Satsunkevich said Bialiatski had been detained in “extremely poor” conditions while awaiting trial. She said he and other activists in pre-trial detention were not allowed any visitors including family, had no access to the outside world, had their letters censored and their meetings with lawyers recorded.
She also said they were kept in cramped, dark conditions, often in basements with very little sunlight, and only permitted to shower once a week, which had led to health problems. “There is no human treatment,” she said.
Setsunkevich said she was concerned about her colleagues’ welfare when they are moved to prison, where conditions are notoriously dire. She said prisoners are denied access to medical treatment and kept in overcrowded cells housing as many as 20 people, and only permitted to exercise inside the cell for one hour a day.
Satsunkevich, who like many Belarusian rights defenders has fled to neighbouring Lithuania, said Lukashenko was trying to create an “atmosphere of fear and repression” to prevent activists from doing their work.
She said it was becoming increasingly dangerous to do human rights work in the country and feared she and her colleagues might soon face similar charges to Bialiatski.
“This sentence shows how the authorities treat NGOs,” she said. “There is no possibility of coming back to Belarus and working publicly. We can only work in secret.”
Belarus in spotlight at UN
The Human Rights Council, which has been meeting since 27 February, will debate the human rights situation in Belarus on 22 March.
In March last year, former high commissioner Michelle Bachelet presented to the council her last report on the human rights situation in Belarus in the run-up to and after the 2020 presidential elections, in which Lukashenko claimed victory amid widespread allegations of vote-rigging.
When hundreds of thousands of people rallied to voice their opposition to the elections, the report found they were met with a “massive and violent crackdown” with arrests and detentions reaching an unprecedented scale in the country.
Bachelet cited “a situation of complete impunity” in Belarus, highlighting “authorities’ extensive and sustained actions to crush dissent and repress civil society, independent media and opposition groups, while at the same time shielding perpetrators”.
At least 37,000 people were detained between May 2020 and May 2021, many of whom were placed in administrative detention. The report found that torture and ill-treatment were widespread and systematic, with real or perceived opposition figures targeted and victims unable to access justice.
The authorities began pressing charges against opposition figures, human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers and citizens in September 2020, the report found, while hundreds of NGOs were closed down.
To date, around 1500 people have been jailed on politically motivated charges in Belarus since 2020, according to the UN.
The European Union has announced it will be tabling a proposal spearheaded by Germany to request Türk to continue monitoring Belarus for another year, until April 2024.
Speaking after Bialiatski’s sentencing, Germany’s foreign minister Annalena Baerbock called the trial a “farce” and said the “Minsk regime is fighting civil society with violence and imprisonment”, while EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell described the trials as an attempt to silence rights defenders that would not work.
“Lukashenko will not succeed. Their call for freedom is loud, even behind bars,” Borrell said in a statement.
Anaïs Marin, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Belarus, delivered her last report to the council in June 2022. “Systemic human rights violations and impunity for those crimes have engulfed Belarus in a climate of arbitrariness and fear,” she said.
She cited attempts by the government to eliminate the civic space and crush all freedom of expression.
Speaking after Bialiatski’s trial, Marin joined other UN experts in condemning what they called the “targeted use of criminal persecution and instrumentalisation of the justice system by Belarusian authorities to quash all scrutiny and dissent to its repressive policies”.
“While the ruling is a bitter reminder that there is no independent judiciary in Belarus, the search for accountability and justice must not end,” the UN experts said.
Viasna has also called on the UN human rights council to establish an independent investigative mechanism in addition to the OHCHR’s ongoing examination of the situation in Belarus. Along with a coalition of civil society organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Article19, it said such a mechanism was essential to “prepare the ground for effective accountability for human rights crimes that have only multiplied in Belarus in the years since the 2020 election”.
Crackdown on human rights
Viasna’s Satsunkevich said President Lukashenko’s crackdown on dissent was worsening, with increasing “pressure on human rights defenders and civil society”. She said more than 1,000 NGOs had been shut down in the past two years and many activists forced to flee, including the majority of her Viasna colleagues.
Satsunkevich said there are no signs that the regime will relent. “The authorities continue to arrest people every day, and we receive information about searches, detentions, people being questioned and put on trial every day,” she said. “It looks like there is no end to this.”
President Lukashenko, who has been described as “Europe’s last dictator”, is a close ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin. He has allowed Russia to use Belarus as a staging ground for its invasion of Ukraine, hosting Russian troops and allowing them to cross over into the country from the Belarusian border.
Lukashenko has been sanctioned for his role in the invasion of Ukraine as well as his political oppression at home. Satsunkevich said the authorities’ crackdown on opposition had “become more severe” since the start of the war, with any public opposition to the regime brutally suppressed.
Protests erupted in Belarus following the invasion in February 2022 but were brutally repressed by authorities. Satsunkevich said thousands of people were detained and charged for “anti-war activities” ranging from laying flowers and candles at the Ukrainian embassy to wearing blue and yellow striped ribbons in the colours of the Ukraine flag or posting photos of Russian forces and military equipment in Belarus on social media.
Satsunkevich said it was essential that the international community continued to scrutinise the situation in Belarus, both for the safety of her colleagues and for democracy and human rights in the country as a whole.
“Month by month the human rights situation is getting worse and worse,” she said. “There is no end. It is only getting worse. There is a social and political crisis in Belarus.”