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Belarus is not safe for anyone critical of authorities, warns rights expert

Unsplash/Angie Bob Protestors at the March of Peace and Independence in Minsk, Belarus in November 2020. (file)
Unsplash/Angie Bob Protestors at the March of Peace and Independence in Minsk, Belarus in November 2020. (file)

Citizens and civil society critical of the Belarussian authorities face worsening repression, arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and harassment, nearly four years since widespread public protests took place surrounding the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko, a UN independent human rights expert said on Wednesday.

In her final, annual report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Special Rapporteur on the rights situation in Belarus, Anaïs Marin, echoed wider, longstanding concerns from the UN and the international community about a crackdown on democratic freedoms and other serious rights abuses in the country.

President Lukashenko, 69, has been in power since 1994 and is Europe’s longest-serving leader.

Repression in Belarus has reached such a scale and intensity that it should not be considered a safe country for anyone who ever showed disagreement with the government or its policies. I therefore reiterate my call to refrain from extraditions and expulsions to Belarus,” said Ms. Marin, a political scientist and French national who was appointed by the Geneva-based Human Rights Council in 2018.

Democratic U-turn

“The general trend I observe is a further tightening of the screws against any real or perceived opposition to the acting government, and the systematic persecution of anyone who dares expressing dissenting views about its policies,” she told the Human Rights Council, which is the top UN forum for Member States to discuss and address human rights situations of concern.

In the absence of Belarus at the Council to respond to her report, the Special Rapporteur also noted that as the country had entered a new electoral cycle, it had sent “no signal that the next presidential election will be held differently than before”.

Extremist label

To illustrate the pressure faced by civil society in Belarus – which denied the Special Rapporteur’s requests to visit the country, she said – Ms. Marin noted that more than 1,500 registered associations had “disappeared” in recent years – almost half the number that existed prior to the 2020 election violence.

“This was achieved also by designating them as “extremist formations”, and subsequently prosecuting their leaders and members, pushing them to relocate abroad,” she explained.

Trades unions and more undone

In her report covering the period from 1 April 2023 to 31 March 2024, the independent expert maintained that “all types of independent associations” have suffered in Belarus: civil society organisations and initiatives, political parties, trade unions, bar associations, religious or cultural organizations and online communities.

Furthermore, independent trade unions in Belarus “have been dismantled” and the number of political parties has fallen from 16 to four in the period leading up to the February 2024 parliamentary elections, the Special Rapporteur said.

Exile or prison

All those who ever dared speaking up against the government or its policies are either behind bars or in exile”, Ms. Marin said in a separate statement, adding that dissidents in exile “continue to face harassment, being labelled as traitors or extremists, and prosecuted in absentia for alleged crimes”.

Among the legislative measures used by the authorities “to crackdown on free assembly and association”, the independent expert listed mandatory re-registration campaigns, restrictions on access to funding and “retaliation” for donations, along with “liquidation of associations through or without judicial proceedings”, designation of undesirable associations as “extremist formations” and the “persecution of their leaders, members, volunteers and supporters”.

For those in prison, the independent expert highlighted “over a dozen” reported deaths in custody since 2020. These had been “most likely caused by inadequate or untimely medical care”, Ms. Marin said, adding that “a few detainees have been held incommunicado for over a year and their families are unaware of their fate”.

There have also been “a growing number of allegations of ill-treatment of inmates convicted on what appear to be politically motivated charges” the Special Rapporteur said, while also pointing with concern to the harassment of minorities and members of LGBTIQ+ community and the “intimidation” of relatives of “extremists” living in exile.

Special Rapporteurs

Appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council and forming of a part of its Special Procedures, Special Rapporteurs are mandated to monitor and assess the rights situation in certain thematic or country situations.

They work in their individual capacity, are not UN staff and do not receive a salary.

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