In the months leading up to the 9 August presidential elections, the Belarusian authorities had cracked down harshly on dissenting protesters who opposed the re-election of Alexander Lukashenko. The UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution on 18 September to enhance scrutiny of alleged violations in Belarus following reports of torture and detentions. Belarus objected to the resolution but is not currently a member of the council and could not block the resolution.
Lukashenko has been in power since his election in 1994 and maintained political power through strong state control of the economy, control over the media, and general repression. His political agenda has been labelled as authoritarian, entailing the restoration of the old Soviet economic system with only marginal market economic elements; gradually increasing political repression; and close political relations with Russia.
Speaking to Human Rights Watch reporters, interviewees detailed the beatings, prolonged stress positions, electric shocks and threats of murder and rape to which they’d been subjected. Six people who were interviewed had to be “hospitalized for one to five days, four of them had fractures and one was raped with a truncheon in a police van.” On the basis of Human Rights Watch’s findings, much of the physical abuse by riot police and other law enforcement agents constitutes torture, as do the detention conditions that interviewees described. Belarusian human rights groups have filed a submission in the interests of 47 former detainees with the UN Committee Against Torture alleging cruel and degrading treatment by police.
Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, has described the situation as “deteriorated beyond anything we have seen in three decades of the country’s independence.” The UN Council’s special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Belarus, Anais Marin, reported that more than 10,000 people had been forcefully arrested while taking part in protests, and that the authorities in Belarus were “escalating violence.”
The UN representative for Belarus denied the claims of torture and detention, insisting that “mass media and social networks have provided a lopsided picture of reality.” He urged the Council to not unduly interfere in internal affairs. Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei described the resolution as “absolutely contrived.” On 26 August, the Belarus prosecutor’s office announced the creation of an inter-agency commission to look into recent police conduct. However, the authorities have yet to open a single criminal case.
The crackdown in Belarus has drawn attention for weeks, and hopefully the UN Council’s resolution will signify the international community’s attention and awareness on the issue. These inquiries will not eliminate, but rather underscore Belarus’ own obligations to hold police accountable for beating, sexually abusing and humiliating detainees. The inquiries will also help establish an authoritative and independent record of the abuses, and maintain the spotlight on Belarusian authorities’ conduct for months to come.
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