Belarus: human rights defender says crackdown on freedom an ‘absolute catastrophe’
On February 16, Ales Bialiatski’s home and the offices of his human rights organisation Viasna in Minsk were raided by police.
He was targeted along with more than 40 other human rights defenders, journalists and their relative in towns across the country, with reports of officials using excessive force while seizing phones, computers and credit cards.
Bialiatski, one of Belarus’ most prominent human rights defenders, says the authorities were looking for any evidence of organisations or journalists “financing” peaceful protests against the country’s president Alexander Lukashenko. The raids are the latest development in the government’s brutal crackdown on mass protests which have been ongoing in the country since Lukashenko claimed victory in a rigged election last August.
The authorities have recently opened a criminal case against Viasna and Bialiatski himself. A former political prisoner who spent nearly three years in a Belarusian jail, he says that, by the time this article is published, he may once again be behind bars.
“Millions of people want change, and the answer of the government is repression,” says Bialiatski, speaking to Geneva Solutions from the Right Livelihood Foundation offices in Geneva. He and Viasna received the prestigious award in 2020.
Seven months on from the election, more than 33,000 people have been detained, and there are widespread reports of police brutality, arbitrary arrests, kidnapping, and torture of detainees.
The human rights situation in Belarus is, in Bialiatski’s words, “an absolute catastrophe”. “The situation is quite horrible because it's not only human rights defenders that suffer,” he explains. “It's all levels of society. Anybody who can think.”
Over half a year since the first protests broke out in the capital Minsk, he says the authorities are still tightening their grip on personal freedoms and carrying out grave human rights violations, targeting activists, journalists and anyone who opposes the regime. But the people of Belarus are not giving up.
What’s going on in Belarus? The government’s crackdown in Belarus follows mass protests in the country last summer after a fraudulent election in which Lukashenko, known as “Europe’s last dictator”, claimed to have won 80 per cent of the vote. The poll is widely accepted to have been rigged to extend his 25-year rule, prompting the largest demonstrations in the country’s history.
Elections in Belarus have never been considered free and fair by many international observers. Bialiatski has been working to advocate for democratic freedoms in the country since his early twenties, when the country was still under Soviet rule.
He founded Viasna in 1996, five years after Belarus gained independence from the Soviet Union and two years after Lukashenko came to power. The organisation’s initial aim was to help thousands of protesters arrested during mass pro-democracy rallies after Lukashenko brought in sweeping constitutional reforms that consolidated his authoritarian rule.
“[My colleagues and I] thought that this work would finish in a few years because the problem would disappear,” says Bialiatski. “But it’s been 25 years and there’s still work to do. It’s never ended. Unfortunately, the human rights situation never got better.”
Accusations of rigged elections, brutal suppression of civil rights and corruption have been hallmarks of Lukashenko's half a century in power. However, Bialiatski says last year’s poll acted as a catalyst. It was then that Belarusian society finally “woke up” and demanded change.
Breaking the silence. In the run-up to elections in Belarus in 2020, a number of opposition figures became extremely popular, including former members of Lukashenko’s government and Sergei Tikhanovskya, a well-known blogger who travelled the country interviewing former loyal supporters of the ruler about why they had turned against him.
Although Lukashenko jailed or exiled many of his opponents, he did not see Sviatlana Tsikhanovskaya - who ran in the place of her husband when he was imprisoned - as a significant threat. However, Tsikhanovskaya became hugely popular, gaining the support of fellow opposition figures and attracting large crowds of supporters to her rallies.
Events in 2020 drastically impacted the Lukashenko’s loyal following and damaged his reputation. The country’s already dire economic situation was exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis, which the ruler has fervently denied, refusing to bring in restrictions and joking that the virus could be fought with vodka and work in the country’s potato fields. “Lukashenko was laughing into the world’s face and denying the existence of the virus, while people all around were dying,” says Bialiatski.
Tsikhanovskaya was widely expected to win the vote in a landslide. Although independent polling is illegal in Belarus, making it difficult to measure her lead in the run up to the election, some independent exit polls conducted outside polling stations in foreign embassies on election day showed her to have received 79.69 per cent of the vote while Lukashenko received just 6.25 per cent.
When the government announced it had won 80 per cent of the vote, claiming that Tsikhanovskaya had received less than 10 per cent, Belarusians realised the election had been rigged. “It was an open lie in the face of the people,” says Bialiatski. “Of course there were rallies - nobody believed the result.”
“The very first mass protests on the street were a result of despair and disappointment and disagreement with this injustice that had happened in the country,” he adds.
Thousands of people took to the streets across the country to peacefully protest the result, but they were met with a brutal crackdown from authorities. In Minsk, which saw the worst of the violence, police and the army deployed water cannons, stun grenades and rounds of rubber bullets against protesters. Police vans were reportedly driven into crowds and hundreds were injured, with journalists and independent observers apparently targeted.
As reports circulated of extreme violence against protesters, including systematic torture of detainees by police and security forces, thousands more Belarusians rallied. Over 200,000 people took part in the largest protest in the country’s history, and there were hopes that the pressure may finally topple Lukashenko.
However, the result was an even more brutal crackdown, in which thousands were injured and arrested. “Unfortunately, the peaceful protests didn’t lead to a change of government as was hoped and expected,” says Bialiatski. “Instead, daily repressions started against different people at different layers of society, at different organisations and activists.”
Crackdown on human rights and freedom of speech. According to Viasna, over 2,300 criminal cases have been opened against human rights defenders and activists since the protests erupted in August 2020. In February alone, during the latest spate of arrests, a further 511 people were detained, 102 people received sentences and 49 people imprisoned.
There is currently a criminal case open against Viasna and Bialiatski himself for inciting “public disorder” through allegedly financing ongoing protests by paying the huge fines imposed on protesters. He says the latest raids in which police seized phones, laptops and credit cards were an attempt to collect evidence. “This is considered as financial proof against the regime,” he explains. “They are not allowing us to exercise our human rights protection work, which is our right.
“We are working all the time on the edge of the knife because [we] don't know when this criminal case will take force and [we] will be sentenced for it,” he says.
It’s not just activists who are being targeted. According to Viasna, there are currently 258 political prisoners in the country, including journalists and bloggers. On 17 February, two journalists, Katsiaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova, both of the Polish-funded Belsat TV channel, were convicted of violating public order and sentenced to two years in prison for covering the protests.
“They are looking for ‘criminals’ among those who help political prisoners and write about the struggle of Belarusians for freedom,” wrote Tsikhanovskaya on Twitter in response to the latest raids. Tsikhanovskaya was forced to flee to Lithuania following last year’s elections.
“But in search of criminals, they should look into the offices of the riot police, the GUBOPiK (interior ministry directorate) and all those responsible for the repression.”
A number of Bialiatski’s colleagues are incarcerated in the country's jails, imprisoned for as little as sending food parcels to jailed protesters. A former political prisoner himself who spent nearly three years behind bars from 2011-2014, Bialitksi knows all too well how terrible the conditions in Belarus’ prisons can be. With widespread reports of detainees being tortured and subjected to brutal treatment, he says he’s deeply concerned for their welfare.
“How people are treated in Belarusian jails is not a humane way to treat people,” he says. “I really hope that my colleagues and my friends can survive it and I really hope that one day they will be released.”
Pressure from the international community. Last summer’s crackdown prompted western countries to impose sanctions on Minsk, but Lukashenko has refused to resign, bolstered by diplomatic and financial support from long-standing ally Russia. Tikhanovskaya, who remains in Lithuania after the country rejected the Belarusian authority’s request for her extradition, is leading a campaign to encourage external pressure on Belarus in the hope that tougher measures against the regime may succeed in toppling Lukashenko.
Her efforts could be paying off. In December, the EU imposed a third round of economic sanctions against key individuals and companies in Belarus, while in February the Biden administration expanded the list of senior officials in the country who are no longer welcome in the United States.
Tikhanovskaya has also created a Coordination Council, effectively a government in waiting, which is headed by Bialiatski. The council is drafting a new constitution and keeps in contact with key figures in Belarus to ensure that the exiled opposition does not become detached from those who are keeping up the pressure on Lukashenko from within.
The situation in Belarus is also being closely watched by the United Nations. Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet recently presented her report on the aftermath of August’s elections to the 46th session of the Human Rights Council at the end of February. Bachelet warned of a “human rights crisis” in the country and called for an immediate end to the policy of systematic intimidation used by the Belarusian authorities against peaceful protesters and for the release of political prisoners.
Viasna has supported a number of other rights organisations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in calling on the Human Rights Council to establish a new mechanism on Belarus. Bialiatski explains that the situation in the country must be kept high up on the international agenda if there is any hope of bringing down Lukashenko’s regime.
“It is very important to continue to exercise international pressure on Belarus, pointing out that human rights have to be preserved in the country,” he says. “This help of international society is required today - not tomorrow, today. Because tomorrow it might be too late.”
Hope for the future. Bialiatski says it is impossible to predict what the coming weeks, and even days, will bring to the people of Belarus. He says the latest crackdown has had a “very, very intimating result. People are scared. ”
“One thing is for sure,” he continues. “The administrative and criminal charges, and punishments and sentences against the activists and human rights defenders will get harsher. This I can guarantee. The current power is continuing to tighten the screws.
“I often ask myself how long the people can continue to bear this pressure, and if they will continue to bear it much longer.”
There are hopes that the spring could bring another wave of protests in Belarus. Speaking during a trip to Finland last week, exiled opposition leader Tikhanovskaya said she expected mass protest against Lukashenko to start up again soon after a lull in public demonstrations due to the authorities brutal suppression.
Bialiatski shares some of her cautious optimism. “The crisis has not gone, we are not beyond it,” he says. “The disagreement, disapproval and unhappiness of the people is so strong that I think there will be another breakout soon.”
He says that it is only a matter of time before Lukashenko loses his grip on Belarus - be it a result of peaceful protests, international pressure or the deteriorating economic situation in the country, although most likely a combination of all three. “This is the first time we have clearly seen that the current regime is in the minority and this gives us a significant certainty that the regime, the current power, cannot stay much longer,” he says.
After spending most of his life tirelessly working to uphold human rights in the face of relentless persecution at the hands of the Belarusian authorities, Bialiatski has managed to retain faith that his country will one day become a free democracy. What gives him hope that this could finally be the turning point in Belarus's history? The country's young people, he says, who have led the movement against Lukashenko.
“These young people in Belarus who strive for a change have totally different values to Lukashenko and his entourage,” he says. “And it's difficult to change the minds of young people. They are born with it. They will keep on fighting. ”