FIDH and Viasna: As Protests Continue Ahead of Presidential Election, Authorities Must Refrain from Violence
(Minsk, Paris) — The 2020 presidential election season in Belarus has been marked by an unprecedented level of protest activity and a harsh response from authorities. In addition to police violence and arbitrary arrests of peaceful protesters, since the end of July the government has been mobilising the military in an attempt to curb protesters’ activities and intimidate the opposition. Local human rights groups warn that the mobilisation of the military ahead of the August 9th elections could lead to further escalation of violence. FIDH and Viasna Human Rights Centre call on the Belarusian authorities to refrain from using violence against peaceful protesters and to ensure transparency throughout the electoral process.
Repression has marred Belarus’ presidential campaign season since the beginning. President Lukashenka, who has been in power for 26 years, does not shy away from using all means to intimidate citizens calling for democratic changes. Since May 2020, the Belarus police has arbitrarily detained over 1,300 people, including activists and journalists, for participating in peaceful protests. Over 200 of them were sent to jail to serve short terms. Twenty-seven activists, political figures, and their supporters have been arrested on bogus charges, and 24 of them are now held in pre-trial detention centres. Local human rights groups consider all of them to be political prisoners.
In late July, the authorities started to relocate military convoys to Minsk, while President Lukashenka made a tour of military units, discussing possible involvement of the military to “restore the constitutional order” with the State Secretary of the Security Council of Belarus Andrey Raukou.
Shortly thereafter, on 3 August, the Minister of Internal Affairs, Yury Karayeu, addressed the police, stating that the upcoming elections would be “a test of strength for the whole law enforcement system” and demanded that his subordinates "not give in to provocations", implying that the protests constitute provocations.
"The threat of using the military and a fortiori the use of it against peaceful protesters is unacceptable in a democratic society. It is clear, however, that the Belarus authorities are willing to do anything to ensure the reelection of the current president," Valiantsin Stefanovic, FIDH Vice President and Deputy Chairman of the Viasna Human Rights Centre, said.
The electoral process itself has been marred with numerous violations of the established procedure for holding a presidential vote and falls short of international standards on free and fair elections. In the run-up to the elections, three opposition candidates were denied the opportunity to stand for the elections on formal politically motivated pretexts; two of them - blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski and businessman Viktar Babaryka - were arrested on bogus charges and are being held in pre-trial detention. The authorities intimidate and impede the campaigning of the most successful candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who stepped forward as a candidate after the arrest of her husband prevented him from running.
For the first time in the history of independent Belarus, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe will not send election observation missions due to the late invitation from the Belarusian authorities. It is highly alarming that there will be no independent observation during the upcoming elections: on 22 July, the country’s central election commission set a five-person limit on the number of observers who can observe any given polling station. By the time the amendments were adopted, over 40,000 observers representing pro-government political parties and public associations were accredited as observers at the polling station election commissions. Thus, independent observers were deprived of the opportunity to be present at the polling stations. This lack of independent observation—a necessary condition for free and democratic elections—heightens the risk of fraud.
Despite all three months of the campaign season being tarnished by repression, police violence and bureaucratic hurdles, Belarusians have shown incredible political will and solidarity, demonstrating in favor of free elections and supporting opposition candidates. On 31 July, a record 63,000 people supported Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya in Minsk, in the largest opposition rally seen in Belarus in over a decade.
FIDH and Viasna HRC expect the protests to continue this week, leading up to election day, and beyond. We therefore call on the Belarusian authorities to refrain from using violence by the police and army against peaceful demonstrators and to guarantee freedom of peaceful assembly and political expression, in line with international human rights law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.