Speaking at a meeting of the Human Rights Council, High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet shared reports of more than 27,000 arrests since 9 August, when protesters began contesting the result of presidential elections.
“In the last month, hundreds of people continued to be arrested each week during the demonstrations – with reportedly around 1,000 people on 8 November and 700 on 15 November, while allegations of injuries during dispersals and of ill-treatment during arrests continued to emerge”, she said.
“Senior citizens have reportedly also been arrested during the pensioners’ peaceful weekly marches”, she added, pointing out that on 30 November, some 20 had been arrested.
The #UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet urged the Government of #Belarus to put an end to ongoing #humanrights violations and to take steps towards a genuine, respectful and inclusive national dialogue.https://t.co/e04lHZTAfJ pic.twitter.com/I8elQawvpU
— UN Belarus (@UNBelarus) December 4, 2020
The penalties imposed on protestors appear to be growing more severe, the High Commissioner observed.
She informed that until recently, most of those arrested faced administrative charges and were sentenced to fines or detention for up to 15 days.
However, she observed that in recent weeks “increasing numbers of demonstrators are being charged under various articles of the Criminal Code, which sometimes entail heavy prison sentences”.
“Overall, in the context of the elections, over 900 people have reportedly been treated as suspects in criminal cases”, the UN rights chief flagged, including “opposition presidential candidates, supporters of the opposition, journalists, bloggers, lawyers and human rights defenders”.
Many remain in detention.
Violence against protesters
Ms. Bachelet also expressed her deep concern over the “use of force violations by the security forces”.
“As the Council is aware, authorities should facilitate peaceful assemblies, and the use of force during protests should always be exceptional, proportionate and a measure of last resort”, she reminded. “Even when there are isolated acts of violence by some participants, the entire assembly should not be considered as losing its peaceful character”.
She told the meeting that since 9 August, her office’s monitoring and analysis of demonstrations indicate that although participants were overwhelmingly peaceful, “they were systematically, and in most cases, violently dispersed”, including by tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets and stun grenades.
The High Commissioner expressed concern over reports that at least four people have died in demonstrations; protestors are being randomly chased and kicked; detainees are being beaten by security; and unidentified masked men are dispersing protests, alongside riot police – heightening a climate of fear and impunity.
“If confirmed, such incidents would constitute ill-treatment and, in some cases, may amount to torture”, she spelled out.
Moreover, since end-October, up to 2,000 complaints have been lodged of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in custody.
Protect rights defenders
Since August, 373 journalists have been arrested, six of whom are currently detained, three on criminal charges.
“I deplore the continuing harassment and arrests of many human rights defenders and journalists, in the context of the protests”, Ms. Bachelet underscored.
Meanwhile, lawyers involved in human rights violations are also under pressure – with some disbarred and others facing criminal accusations – and disciplinary sanctions are being imposed on protesting teachers and students.
Stop the rights violations
The High Commissioner called on the government to put an end to ongoing human rights violations by, among other things, immediately releasing all those unlawfully detained for exercising their rights to freedom of expression; respect the right of peaceful assembly; and ensure independent and transparent investigations into all allegations of torture and other human rights violations.
Although access to Belarus has not been granted for a technical team to assess the situation, Ms. Bachelet assured that she would continue remote monitoring and report back with recommendations “to support strengthening human rights and the rule of law, and developing accountable institutions”.
Belarus pushes back
In its reply, the Government of Belarus’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, Yuri Ambrazevich, said that “most people were continuing with their normal lives” in the country and “the Government was functioning”, as were factories and offices.