BELARUSIAN CSOs TAKE A STAND AGAINST PRESSURE AND COORDINATED PERSECUTION

BELARUSIAN CSOs TAKE A STAND AGAINST PRESSURE AND COORDINATED PERSECUTION

General update

Following the mass protests that have been unfolding in Belarus since the release of the results of the presidential elections from 9th August 2020, more journalists, human rights activists and trade union members have been detained and attacked by the police. These chains of events have become alarming to the rest of the world and are having a major impact on civil society organisations (CSOs) in Belarus. CSOs are becoming a target of these attacks because they are leading awareness campaigns and are attempting to lobby authorities to put an end to the pressures and coordinated persecutions targeted at journalists and civic activists. The homes of civil society representatives are being searched with the intention of clamping down on their freedom of expression. They are also being arrested for allegedly providing financial assistance to people whose rights and freedoms have been violated.

For more information on how the initial protests broke out in Belarus, read our previous update.

Expressions

Freedom of expression of CSOs suppressed in Belarus

On 16th February 2021, Nikolai Kvantaliani, a member of the Belarusian National Platform Coordination Committee of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum, reported on the social network that law enforcement officers had descended on his apartment that morning to conduct searches. On the same day, the National Platform of Belarus in the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum issued an emergency statement condemning the pressure exerted by Belarusian authorities on journalists, civic activists or human rights defenders. The emergency statement highlighted that the searches took place at the office of the Viasna Center, but also at the headquarters of the independent trade union REP. The investigations were carried out as part of a criminal case under Article 342 of the Criminal Code of Belarus – which prohibits the organisation and preparation of actions, or active participation in them, that grossly violate public order.

In reaction to this, CSOs expressed their demands in the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. In this Declaration, the signatories called on the authorities to stop the pressure and coordinated persecution of independent journalists and civil society representatives. They are also addressing international fora to take urgent action against abuses of the Belarusian government.

More institutions exert pressure to stop suppression of freedom of press and freedom of expression

In the same context of the pressure exerted on the free press and the suppression of freedom of expression, the International Media Support also condemned the illegal and politically motivated detentions in several cities in the country (Minsk, Mogilev, Vitebsk, Homel, Mozyr, Brest and Rechyts). Furthermore, Gulnara Akhundova, the IMS Head of Global Response, stated that “The prosecution of key civil society actors in Belarus signals a dangerous escalation of the Belarusian authorities’ despicable clampdown on freedom of expression and demonstrates the extent of measures the authorities are prepared to employ to keep the power, whatever it takes”. Another institution that has added their voice is the European Union Delegation in Belarus through a publication on their website titled 'Joint Statement by the EU Delegation in Belarus on behalf of the EU Member States represented in Minsk and the Embassies of the United States, the United Kingdom and Switzerland on the harassment of rights defenders, journalists, and trade union activists'. The Joint Statement condemns the pressure on civil society and calls on the Belarusian authorities to release those detained illegally for their actions to promote human rights and denounce abuses.

Two Belsat TV journalists sentenced to two years in prison

Despite the numerous calls for the Belarusian authorities to release those detained illegally for their actions to promote human rights and denounce abuses, journalists and civil society representatives continue to be detained. On 18th February 2021, Viasna Center reported that Katsiaryna Bakhvalava and Darya Chultsova, journalists working with the Belsat TV channel and included in the list of political prisoners, were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. Both journalists were found guilty of being involved in “group actions gravely breaching public order”, meaning that they participated in protest actions. According to Viasna Center, the journalists disrupted public transport work while covering on YouTube a protest held in Minsk after the death of Roman Bandarenka, who was murdered in November 2020. The two women were detained during the rally when the police violently dispersed the crowd. Despite the fact that the defence maintained their initial opinion that the journalists were innocent – the courts were firm in sentencing them to two years imprisonment. These two Belsat TV journalists have been declared 'political prisoners' by the civil society community because of their pursuit of acting in accordance with freedom of the press and expression.

Belsat TV journalists Yekaterina Andreyeva (right) and Darya Chultsova (left) embrace each other in a defendant's cage during their trial in Minsk on 18th February
Belsat TV journalists Yekaterina Andreyeva (right) and Darya Chultsova (left) embrace each other in a defendant's cage during their trial in Minsk on 18th February

Another young man, Ihar Prazhennikau, was accused of obstructing traffic during a protest in October 2020 and also sentenced to one and a half years in a general-security penal colony. The 21-year-old was also declared a political prisoner. More journalists, human rights defenders and civil society representatives are being sentenced to imprisonment. The list of political prisoners in Belarus is documented by Viasna Center and can be accessed here: List of Political Prisoners.

Peaceful Assembly

More CSO reports reveal the need for justice for protesters

In December 2020, experts from the Human Rights Center, known as the Viasna Center, and experts of the Barys Zvozskau presented a report titled “Belarus. August 2020: Justice” for Protesters”. This document was prepared by the Belarusian Human Rights House, the International Federation for Human Rights and the World Organization against Torture. The report focused on the violent crackdown on protests in Belarus immediately after the August 2020 presidential electionviolations in detention centres and pressure on peaceful demonstrators. The analysis contains testimonies of more than 40 persons detained illegally and who did not have access to legal representation or did not have a fair trial. Furthermore, the report highlights procedural violations by representatives of the courts and contains a series of recommendations, which include the immediate release of illegally detained persons and the punishment of those guilty of using force against peaceful protesters and torture in temporary detention centres.

In the same context, another report entitled “Corridor of Truncheons. How popular demonstrations are met with massive police violence and denial of justice” was prepared by experts from the Committee Against Torture (CAT Russia) and the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT). This report completes the picture of the abuses committed by the Belarusian authorities between August and November 2020. This report particularly denounces the police's abuses and how they abused their power to suppress peaceful protests, highlighting the fact that no person guilty of employing force has been held accountable, even though 1,800 bodily injuries were registered by 9th September 2020.

Freedom of Association

International CSOs support Belarusian CSOs

In the context of increasing pressure on Belarusian civil society, the authorities have been debating CSOs’ illegal foreign funding. According to civil society organisations, which issued a joint statement on February 5, 2021, the authorities' actions aim to suppress civil society's activities. The text of the statement highlights several cases of abuse by the police who, under the pretext of investigating illegal funding, have descended on the offices of several non-governmental organisations or their representatives' homes. Journalist Andrei Aliaksandarau and human rights defender Leanid Sudalenka were detained for allegedly providing financial assistance to people whose rights and freedoms had been violated. Another case mentioned in the statement refers to the Office for the Rights of People with Disabilities, whose employees were searched because they had provided financial assistance, including from foreign sources, for people with disabilities.

"We face the criminalisation of our activities on the part of the state and we are subjected to systematic harassment and intimidation, arbitrary detentions, torture and degrading treatment and limitations on our movements." Leonid Sudalenka

According to the text of the statement, during 2020, the accusations of illegal financing brought against CSOs increased. Most of the time, the reasons were political. Following the electoral fraud in the presidential elections in August 2020 and the outbreak of protests in Belarus, people organised several actions to support victims of abuse and violence coordinated by law enforcement. Some of these actions were organised by CSOs, others by Belarusians abroad. The national legislation in force is very restrictive regarding civil society organisations' financing options and the reporting procedures fo the donations received by them. To deter more suppressions of CSOs’ activities, the statement is signed by non-governmental organisations in Belarus and is supported by several foreign CSOs.