Protests Erupt In Belarus After Pre-Election Crackdown On Political Activists

Police in Belarus have arbitrarily arrested journalists, bloggers, and political activists as part of a massive crackdown ahead of the August 9, 2020 presidential election. They also pressed charges against two potential candidates, Human Rights Watch reported Thursday. These arrests raise concerns regarding freedom of expression, particularly of the media. The goal of the police seems to be to keep those who would voice dissent detained until at least after the elections. Despite the crackdown, thousands of supporters of President Alexander Lukashenko’s top election rival rallied in the Belarussian capital of Minsk on Thursday.

“The Belarusian authorities are carrying out a full-scale purge of dissenting voices, using repressive laws to stifle criticism ahead of the elections, where President Alexander Lukashenka is running for the sixth consecutive term. Opposition candidates, supporters, and independent media have faced arbitrary arrest, hefty fines, and incarceration. Now those active on social media are being targeted,” said Aisha Jung, Amnesty International’s Senior Campaigner on Belarus.

From May to July, at least 1,000 people were arrested for gathering peacefully and protesting issues related to the election. Nearly 200 people were sentenced to detention, and hundreds of others were fined. Journalists and bloggers reporting from these peaceful gatherings were also arrested, some being charged for participation in unsanctioned public gatherings or resisting police orders. Some claimed that excessive force was used against them, or that the police beat them.

The Belarusian Central Election Commission (CEC) announced on July 14 that five candidates were registered for the August 9 ballot, including current president Lukashenka who has ruled since 1994. Viktar Babaryka, a former bank manager and top presidential candidate who had gathered a record number of signatures supporting his candidacy, was left off the list of candidates. He was arrested the following day on charges that he claims were politically motivated.

CEC chairwoman Lidziya Yarmoshyna said that Babaryka was not registered because inconsistencies were allegedly found in his income and property declaration and because a foreign organization had taken part in his election campaign. However, the European Unions’ foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that “the seemingly arbitrary exclusion of candidates limits the possibility for the Belarusian people to express their will and already undermines the overall integrity and democratic nature of the elections. By denying the registration of Viktar Babaryka and [Valer] Tsapkala the Belarusian authorities have failed to ensure a meaningful and competitive political contest.”

Siarhei Tsikhanouski, a blogger who had intended to run for president, is also currently detained. After police arrested him several times on misdemeanors, Tsikhanouski’s wife, Sviatlana, announced she would run for president, and Siarhei became her campaign manager. However, Tsikhanouski was arrested on May 29 as he and other activists were gathering signatures for his wife’s candidacy. On July 30, authorities announced they opened new criminal charges against Tsikhanouski and another opposition politician, Mikolai Statkevich, on “preparation for mass riots” and “incitement to violence against police.”

The election comes as Lukashenka faces mounting public opposition. The country has had more than 65,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of July 14, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Despite this, Lukashenka ignored calls to institute any lockdown measures, dismissing the virus as nothing more than a ‘psychosis.’

Under international law, everyone has a right to take part in peaceful assemblies, even if authorities deem it unlawful, and journalists should be allowed to cover these events without undue police interference. Belarusian authorities should respect these human rights.

“Election periods should be a time when governments scrupulously respect political rights, including freedoms of expression and assembly,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe, and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Sadly, this has not been the case in Belarus. Belarus’s leaders should know that the international community will take notice.”