This past Monday, two human rights groups filed a complaint in Germany accusing six high-ranking Belarusian security authorities of crimes against humanity. Since August 2020, Belarusian officials have mounted a campaign of mass detention, torture, and sexual violence in an attempt to quell anti-government protests sparked by President Alexander Lukashenko’s fraudulent victory in August of 2020.
In a joint statement, the filers of the brief, the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) and Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), warned that “the Belarusian government is deliberately using violence to stop the protest movement and secure President Lukashenko’s power.” In a statement, OMCT Secretary General Gerald Staberock said that “there is clear evidence that torture was used intentionally and that it was widespread and systematic, thus reaching the threshold of crimes against humanity.”
Since President Lukashenko first came to power in 1994, the country has slowly devolved into authoritarianism. Lukashenko has dissolved Belarus’s legislature, intimidated and banned electoral opponents, and cracked down on independent media. Election watchdog groups have determined that not one Belarusian election since 1994 has been free or fair.
In 2020, a massive wave of anti-government protests wracked Belarus. When Lukashenko claimed 80% of the vote on election night 2020, demonstrators took the streets to call for a fair count of votes. After images of violent injuries inflicted by the police circulated on social media, more citizens took to the streets and soon grew into the largest anti-government protests in Belarusian history.
In response, Lukashenko staged the brutal crackdown that the OMCT and ECCHR claim included crimes against humanity. Tensions reached a high watermark in May 2021, when the Belarusian government diverted a commercial flight to arrest anti-government journalist Roman Protasevich.
In response to Lukashenko’s human rights violations, the E.U. instituted new sanctions on Belarus in spring of 2021. However, they failed to target the part of Belarus’s economy most reliant on E.U. investment, the Belarusian Development Bank, and analysts predicted that the sanctions would do only limited damage. Indeed, there is little evidence that Lukashenko has cleaned up his human rights record since they were announced.
Prosecution of security officials is a good first step, as the loyalty of Lukashenko’s backers stems from fears of prosecution under new leadership. The international community must make it clear that human rights violations will not be tolerated, even under Lukashenko’s regime. At the same time, they must institute real sanctions that cripple Lukashenko’s government until he agrees to free and fair elections. The people of Belarus are ready for change, but only when the international community stands behind them, will they be able to tear Lukashenko from power.
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