Crackdown on Peaceful Protesters Mars Beginning of Presidential Campaign Season
Paris - Geneva - Minsk, May 13, 2020 – The campaign season for Belarus’ presidential elections, scheduled for August 9, saw sweeping repression against civil society by authorities. Over the past week, authorities arbitrarily detained over 100 peaceful protesters across Belarus, charging them with administrative fines and arrests. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (FIDH-OMCT) and Viasna Human Rights Center urge the Belarusian authorities to put an end to the persecution of peaceful civil society activists and release those who are detained.
The electoral campaigning began last week in Belarus, with the presidential election scheduled for August 9. In this context, a wave of peaceful protests against the policy pursued by the government took place across the country. Authorities responded to the protests with mass arrests, violating the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly as enshrined in Articles 19 and 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) ratified by Belarus in 1973.
On May 6, the police arbitrarily detained blogger and activist Sergey Tsikhanovsky after he announced his intention to run for the presidency and organized a meeting with his supporters. Dozens of Tsikhanovsky’s supporters took to the streets to protest against his arrest and were themselves arbitrarily detained in the following days. At least 38 individuals were fined or sentenced to up to 15 days of detention on charges of violating the procedure for holding a protest (Article 23.34 of the Code of Administrative Offences of Belarus). Among the detained is Viasna’s activist Aliaksandr Burakou.
"During the last month, the authorities have amplified repression against our organization, arbitrarily detaining three of our members and opening criminal cases against two others. The authorities put pressure on our colleagues in retaliation for their civil activities to defend Belarusians’ rights to a healthy environment, peaceful assembly and access to information,"deplores FIDH Vice President Valiantsin Stefanovic.
Two Viasna activists, Alena Masliukova and Uladzimir Vialichkin, are being judicially harassed in the context of the repression of environmental protest movements in different cities of Belarus. Alena Masliukova faces criminal charges related to her campaign against the construction of a bleached-pulp factory in Svetlogorsk. Uladzimir Vialichkin, who faces administrative charges, was arbitrary detained on May 10 while he was monitoring a protest against the construction of a battery plant in Brest.
Concerned with preserving the incumbent president Lukashenko’s prospects in the next election, the authorities maintained an annual Victory Day parade on May 9 and withhold covid-19 facts from media and the public, putting the public’s health at risk.
Chairman of Viasna Human Rights Centre Ales Bialiatski compared the policy of the Belarusian government to that of the Soviet elites: “The Soviet leaders maintained the 1986 parade despite the Chernobyl nuclear accident that severely hit Belarus. In the same manner, the current Belarus authorities pursue their political goals in neglect of the health and political freedoms of Belarus citizens, stifling critical voices of the civil society.”
On May 8, in protest against the authorities’ decision to maintain the parade despite the pandemic, activists from the Youth Bloc—a coalition of a youth candidates for Belarusian Parliament—carried a coffin along Independence Avenue where the official parade rehearsal took place. The day before, another protest was staged on Victory Square: against the background of a signboard stating "The feat of the people is immortal", activists carried signs retorting, "But we are not." Four of the activists were subsequently detained; two of them, Danila Lauretski and Liza Prakopchyk, were sentenced to 13 and 5 days of detention respectively for violating the established procedure for holding a protest (Article 23.34 of the Code of Administrative Offences of Belarus).
"In the context of the electoral campaign, the massive crackdown on civil society, including Viasna, one of the country’s leading human rights groups which ensured independent monitoring during the previous elections, is particularly alarming. The possibilities for monitoring of the elections by independent international observers are limited due to the pandemic. Considering a long history of human rights abuses by the Belarus authorities and the authoritarian nature of the government, these developments make us fear that the situation with political freedoms in Belarus will only worsen as the elections approach," said Gerald Staberock, OMCT Secretary General.
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (FIDH-OMCT) and Viasna call on the Belarus authorities to comply with its international obligations by freeing the detained activists and putting an end to the harassment of peaceful protesters, including Viasna members.
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (the Observatory) was created in 1997 by FIDH and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT). The objective of this programme is to intervene to prevent or remedy situations of repression against human rights defenders. FIDH and OMCT are both members of ProtectDefenders.eu, the European Union Human Rights Defenders Mechanism implemented by international civil society.