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Belarus

Executive Summary

Belarus is an authoritarian state. The constitution provides for a directly elected president who is head of state and a bicameral parliament, the National Assembly. A prime minister appointed by the president is the nominal head of government, but power is concentrated in the presidency, both in fact and in law. Citizens were unable to choose their government through free and fair elections. Since 1994 Alyaksandr Lukashenka has consolidated his rule over all institutions and undermined the rule of law through authoritarian means, including manipulated elections and arbitrary decrees. All elections subsequent to 1994, including the August 9 presidential election, have fallen well short of international standards. The 2019 National Assembly elections also failed to meet international standards.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs exercises authority over police, but other bodies outside of its control, for example, the Committee for State Security, the Financial Investigations Department of the State Control Committee, the Investigation Committee, and presidential security services, also exercise police functions. The president has the authority to subordinate all security bodies to the president’s personal command. Lukashenka maintained effective control over security forces. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.

The country experienced massive civil unrest following the August 9 presidential election as demonstrators protested widespread vote rigging by Lukashenka as well as the government’s widespread use of brute force against and detentions of peaceful protesters. Weekly protests drawing at their peak up to hundreds of thousands of protesters began election night and continued through the end of the year.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings by security forces; torture in detention facilities and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners or detainees; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, or unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists, censorship, site blocking, internet blockages, and the existence of laws regarding criminal libel, slander, and defamation of government officials; overly restrictive nongovernmental organization laws; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including the imposition of criminal penalties for calling for a peaceful demonstration and laws penalizing the activities and funding of groups not approved by authorities; restrictions on freedom of movement; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; restrictions on political participation, including persistent failure to conduct elections according to international standards; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons; and restrictions on independent trade unions; and significant restrictions on workers’ freedom of association.

Authorities at all levels generally operated with impunity and always failed to take steps to prosecute or punish officials in the government or security forces who committed human rights abuses.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings

During the year there were reliable reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings and deaths from torture were reported.

In the wake of the August 9 presidential election, riot police, internal troops, and plainclothes security officers violently suppressed mass protests. At least four individuals died as a result of police violence, shooting by members of the security forces, or the government’s failure to provide medical assistance.

For example, on August 10, police in Minsk shot protester Alyaksandr Taraykouski during a demonstration. Authorities’ claims that Taraykouski was killed when an explosive device he was holding detonated were contradicted by eyewitness accounts and video footage of the incident, in which security forces clearly appeared to shoot Taraykouski in the chest as he approached them with his empty hands raised. The Investigative Committee initiated an investigation into the case but suspended it on November 13. As of December a criminal case had not been initiated in this matter.

On November 2, a representative of the Investigative Committee, the law enforcement body charged with investigating police violence in the country, told the United Nations that the committee was not investigating any allegations of police abuse and declared “currently there have been no identified cases of unlawful acts by the police.” The representative blamed protest organizers for using protesters as “cannon fodder” and bringing children to demonstrations.

On November 12, Raman Bandarenka died from head injuries and a collapsed lung after being severely beaten and detained on November 11 by masked, plainclothes security officers in Minsk. The detention and some beatings were captured on video. After being detained for several hours, Bandarenka was transferred unconscious to a hospital in Minsk where he died. The injuries that resulted in Bandarenka’s death were reportedly more severe than those he received during his arrest, and human rights activists concluded that he was subjected to additional severe abuses while detained. Authorities reportedly launched an inquiry into the incident.

b. Disappearance

During the year there were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.

There were, however, reports of abductions by security forces of opposition leaders. For example, on September 7, masked members of the security forces approached opposition leader Maryya Kalesnikava on the street in Minsk and forced her into a van. According to Kalesnikava’s lawyer, the men first took her to the Ministry of Internal Affair’s Main Directorate for Combatting Organized Crime and Corruption, where she was held for several hours without registering her detention. She was then brought to the central office of the Committee for State Security (BKGB), where she was told to depart the country voluntarily. After Kalesnikava refused, she was taken to the Ukrainian border on September 8, where authorities attempted to force her to leave the country. Kalesnikava tore up her passport to prevent expulsion from the country. She was subsequently arrested, taken back to Minsk, and placed in a detention center, where she remained as of December. On September 16, she was formally charged with “calling for actions that threaten national security.”

On January 16, the Investigative Committee announced it reopened suspended investigations into the 1999 disappearances of former deputy prime minister Viktar Hanchar and businessman Anatol Krasouski. In December 2019 the committee also reopened the investigation into the disappearance of former minister of internal affairs Yury Zakharanka after Yury Harauski, who claimed to be a former special rapid response unit officer, stated he participated in the forced disappearances and killings of Hanchar, Krasouski, and Zakharanka. In March the committee again suspended investigations due to a “failure to identify any suspects.” There was evidence of government involvement in the disappearances, but authorities continued to deny any connection with them. In December 2019 Lukashenka stated that politically motivated killings would be impossible without his orders, which he “[had] never and would never issue.”

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The law prohibits such practices. Nevertheless, the BKGB, riot police, and other security forces, without identification and wearing street clothes and masks, regularly used excessive force against detainees and protesters. Security forces also reportedly mistreated individuals during investigations. Police regularly beat and tortured persons during detentions and arrests. According to human right nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and former prisoners, prison authorities abused prisoners.

According to documented witness reports, on August 9-11, security officers physically abused inside detention vehicles, police stations, and detention facilities on a systemic scale across the country the majority of the approximately 6,700 persons detained during postelection civil unrest. The human rights NGO Vyasna documented more than 500 cases of torture and other severe abuse committed in police custody against postelection protest participants and independent election observers, opposition leaders, civil society activists, and average citizens.

Among the abuses documented were severe beatings; psychological humiliation; the use of stress positions; at least one reported case of rape and sexual abuse; use of electric shock devices and tear gas; and up to three days intentional deprivation of food, drinking water, hygiene products, the use of toilets, sleep, and medical assistance.

For example, according to Human Rights Watch, on August 11, police detained 18-year-old college student Alyaksandr Brukhanchik and two friends as they were walking at night in a residential area and handed them over to a group of Internal Affairs Ministry riot police officers. The officers took the students inside a minibus, beat them, cut their shorts in the buttocks area, threatened to rape them with a grenade, and then transferred them to another police van, forced them to crawl on the blood-spattered floor, and beat them again. An officer kicked Brukhanchik in the face. Brukhanchik presented Human Rights Watch with medical documentation consistent with his account.

There were widespread reports of rape threats and sexual abuse by government agents against both men and women, and at least one reported instance of rape against a detainee. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Moscow Mechanism Report, on August 11, a senior officer raped Ales, a 30-year-old information technology (IT) worker, with a truncheon after his arrest. While in a police van, the officer demanded that Ales unlock his cell phone. When Ales repeatedly refused, the officer cut his shorts and underwear in the back, put a condom on a truncheon, and raped him with it. The officer then further beat Ales. Ales provided NGOs with medical documentation consistent with his account. On November 6, Internal Affairs Ministry first deputy Henadz Kazakevich claimed “a man cannot be raped in accordance with Belarusian law.” By law, however, rape of both men and women is criminalized in the country (see section 6).

Impunity remained a significant problem in almost all branches of the security services, including police and the BKGB. Impunity was widespread and continued largely due to politicization of the security services. On November 2, the Investigative Committee confirmed that the government had not opened any criminal investigations into complaints of torture or police violence filed with the Investigative Committee. While Internal Affairs Minister Yury Karaeu apologized in August to “random residents detained during protests,” he justified the brutal crackdown and subsequent torture by claiming police responded to “aggression coming from protesters against security officers” and “protesters building barricades and resisting police.” Karaeu’s deputy, Alyaksandr Barsukou, who visited holding facilities in Minsk on August 14, dismissed reports of torture, falsely claiming no detainees complained of mistreatment.

According to the OSCE Moscow Mechanism Report, published on October 29, the “first period of postelection violence by the security forces has to be qualified as a period of systemic torture and mistreatment with the main purpose to punish demonstrators and to intimidate them and potential other protesters. To a lesser extent, the infliction of pain and suffering served the purpose of gaining information or confessions. The torture or inhuman and degrading treatment was intentional as it was widespread and systematic as well as targeted at the opposing protesters although some accidental bystanders also became victims of the crackdown. It followed a systematic and widespread pattern including Minsk and other cities.”

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison and detention center conditions remained poor, and in many cases posed threats to life and health.

Physical Conditions: According to former detainees and human rights lawyers, there continued to be shortages of food, medicine, warm clothing, personal hygiene products, and bedding as well as inadequate access to basic or emergency medical care and clean drinking water. Detainees reported that prison officials deliberately denied detainees access to food, water, hygiene products, and necessary medical care, sometimes for several days, as a form of retribution. Overall sanitation was poor. Authorities made little effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, but at the same time used COVID-19 as a pretext to restrict access to visitors and distribution of food, hygiene, and clothing parcels.

Overcrowding of pretrial holding facilities and prisons generally was a problem; however, a May 22 amnesty law reduced the terms of at least 2,500 prisoners, resulting in their release. In the three days after the August 9 election, there was insufficient space in detention facilities for the thousands of detainees that were arrested on protest-related charges, especially in Minsk. Detention facilities were reportedly overcrowded with cells fit for five individuals housing 50 detainees, forcing detainees to take turns standing and resting.

Although there were isolated allegations that police placed underage suspects in pretrial detention facility cells with adult suspects and convicts, authorities generally held juvenile prisoners separately from adults at juvenile penal colonies, arrest houses, and pretrial holding facilities. Conditions for female and juvenile prisoners were generally better than for adult male prisoners.

Observers believed tuberculosis, pneumonia, HIV/AIDS, COVID-19, and other communicable diseases were widespread in prisons because of generally poor medical care.

Individuals detained for political reasons prior to the election or during protests following the August 9 presidential election appeared to face worse prison conditions than those of the general prison population, including more reports of torture and severe abuses.

Administration: Prisoners and detainees had limited access to visitors, and meetings with families were denied allegedly as a common punishment for disciplinary violations. Authorities restricted visitors to all detainees in a reported attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19 in facilities, despite the government’s official nonrecognition of the COVID-19 pandemic and failure to implement national quarantine measures.

Authorities generally prevented prisoners from holding religious services and performing ceremonies that did not comply with prison regulations, despite legal provisions for such practice. Belarusian Orthodox churches were located at a number of prison facilities and Orthodox clergy were generally allowed access to conduct services.

Former prisoners and their defense lawyers reported that prison officials often censored or did not forward their complaints to higher authorities and that prison administrators either ignored or selectively considered requests for investigation of alleged abuses. Prisoners also reported that prison administrators frequently refused to provide them with copies of responses to their complaints, which further complicated their defense. Complaints could result in retaliation against prisoners, including humiliation, death threats, or other forms of punishment and harassment. Former prisoners claimed some prison administrators’ repeated harassment resulted in suicides, which authorities neither investigated nor made public.

Corruption in prisons was a serious problem, and observers noted that parole often depended on bribes to prison personnel. Parole could also depend on a prisoner’s political affiliation.

Independent Monitoring: Despite numerous requests to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, government officials refused to approve requests from NGOs to visit detention and prison facilities and speak with the inmates.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law limits arbitrary detention, but the government did not respect these limits. Authorities, including plainclothes security officers, arrested or detained thousands of individuals during peaceful protests and used administrative measures to detain political and civil society activists, as well as bystanders and journalists not involved in the protests, before, during, and after protests and other major public events, including those legally permitted in the framework of election campaigns.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

By law police must request permission from a prosecutor to detain a person for more than three hours. Authorities may hold a criminal suspect for up to 10 days without filing formal charges and for up to 18 months after filing charges, but in some cases authorities detained persons beyond 18 months. By law detainees are allowed prompt access to a lawyer of their choice or one provided by the state free of charge, although authorities often delayed extending this right to high-profile political prisoners, who faced authorities without the presence of defense lawyers at the initial stages of an investigation. Prosecutors, investigators, and security-service agencies have legal authority to extend detention without consulting a judge. Detainees have the right to petition the court system regarding the legality of their detention, but authorities consistently suppressed or ignored such appeals. The country has no functioning bail system.

There were reports that persons were detained without judicial authorization.

There were some reports of detainees who were held incommunicado. During the initial arrests following the August 9 presidential election, police precincts fingerprinted detainees and processed them for subsequent trial at holding facilities but left them incommunicado.

In the weeks following the election, up to 80 persons were reported missing but were eventually located after authorities acknowledged their detention or released them. According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, on August 11, Yury Savitski, a supporter of jailed presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka, was abducted by six men in civilian clothing after attending a protest the previous day. His wife sought for days to establish his whereabouts, only to be told by authorities that there were too many prisoners and that many were not being officially registered. She was only able to determine his location and the charges he faced after waiting outside the holding facilities in Zhodzina with a photograph of her husband and asking released detainees whether they recognized him.

Arbitrary Arrest: Authorities detained political scientists, political leaders, presidential campaign participants, opposition leaders and members, civil society activists, and demonstrators for reasons widely considered to be politically motivated. In many cases authorities used administrative measures to detain political activists before, during, and after planned demonstrations, protests, and other public events. Security officials arbitrarily detained persons in areas where protesters peacefully lined streets or protests were expected (see section 2.b.).

For example, on May 6, authorities in Mahilyou detained popular blogger and potential presidential candidate Syarhey Tsikhanouski during a countrywide tour to speak with citizens. He had been given a delayed 15-day administrative sentence for participating in an unauthorized mass event in 2019. In response to his arrest, followers of his blog and livestreams began three days of countrywide protests. Security officers without judicial authorization detained and subsequently fined or sentenced more than 100 activists and Tsikhanouski supporters for allegedly participating in unauthorized mass events (see section 2.b., Peaceful Assembly, and section 3).

After opposition leader Viktar Babaryka’s arrest (see section 3), on June 28, BKGB and riot police officers arbitrarily detained at least 52 prominent businessmen, political figures, Babaryka supporters and campaign staff, as well as independent journalists who gathered outside the BKGB building to file requests for Babaryka’s release. Authorities released at least 12 local independent and foreign journalists and 33 other individuals after identification checks were conducted at police precincts. At least seven persons were subsequently tried on administrative charges of allegedly participating in unauthorized mass events and resisting police.

Security forces regularly detained bystanders, including those not involved with protests. For example, according to Human Rights Watch, on August 10, police detained construction worker Alyaksandr Gazimau near a Minsk shopping mall where a crowd of protesters had gathered. According to Gazimau, he was not participating in the protest and had just had dinner with a friend. When riot police arrived, the protesters started to run, and Gazimau ran as well. He fell while running and broke his leg. Police dragged him into a truck, beat him, intentionally stepped on his broken leg, and threatened to rape him with a truncheon. They passed him to another group of officers, who beat him again, took him to a local police precinct, where they forced him to stand on his broken leg, then forced him to the ground and intentionally kicked his broken leg again. He spent the night in the police precinct yard, and was transferred to holding facilities in Zhodzina prison, where he waited two days in the prison hospital before being transferred to a hospital for surgery. Independent media reported dozens of similar accounts of individuals, who were unaware of protest locations because of the government’s internet restrictions but were caught up along with protesters by security forces and arbitrarily detained.

Pretrial Detention: There were approximately 5,000 pretrial detainees in 2018, the latest year for which data were available. Information was not available regarding average length of time or how many continuing investigations were extended for lengthier periods. Observers believed there were a number of possible reasons for the delays, including political interference; charges being brought against individuals held in pretrial detention and investigations opened; new investigators taking over cases; cases that were complicated because they involved many suspects; and cases that required extensive forensic or other expert examinations and analysis. For example, during the year a former chief engineer of the Minsk Wheeled Tractor Factory Andrei Halavach was in the process of suing the government for compensation for the 4.5 years he spent in pretrial detention. Halavach was released in 2019 with all charges cleared and after being acquitted in two separate trials.

Detainees Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Detainees have the right to petition the court system regarding the legality of their detention, but authorities consistently suppressed or ignored such appeals. By law courts or prosecutors have 24 hours to issue a ruling on a detention and 72 hours on an arrest. Courts hold closed hearings in these cases, which the suspect, a defense lawyer, and other legal representatives may attend. Appeals to challenge detentions were generally denied.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but authorities did not respect judicial independence and impartiality. Observers believed corruption, inefficiency, and political interference with judicial decisions were widespread. Courts convicted individuals on false and politically motivated charges brought by prosecutors, and observers believed that senior government leaders and local authorities dictated the outcomes of trials.

As in previous years, according to human rights groups, prosecutors wielded excessive and imbalanced authority because they may extend detention periods without the permission of judges. Defense lawyers were unable to examine investigation files, be present during investigations and interrogations, or examine evidence against defendants until a prosecutor formally brought the case to court. Lawyers found it difficult to challenge some evidence because the Prosecutor’s Office controlled all technical expertise. According to many defense attorneys, this power imbalance persisted, especially in politically motivated criminal and administrative cases. Courts did not exonerate criminal defendants except in rare circumstances.

There were reports of retaliatory prosecution and debarment of defense lawyers representing political campaigns, opposition leaders, and the opposition’s Coordination Council. For example, on September 24, Lyudmila Kazak, defense attorney for the opposition’s Coordination Council Presidium member Maryya Kalesnikava, disappeared. It later became known that she was abducted off the streets of Minsk by unidentified men and brought to a holding facility. Kazak was charged and found guilty of allegedly resisting detention by police at an opposition rally on August 30 that she had not attended. Kazak was fined approximately 675 rubles ($277) in what human rights organizations and Kazak herself called a politically motivated case in retaliation for her defense work on Kalesnikava’s case.

On October 15, prominent lawyer and member of the Minsk City Bar Association for 30 years Alyaksandr Pylchenka lost his license to practice law, allegedly for statements he made in an August 14 interview with independent media in which he called for legal measures to be taken by the prosecutor general to hold security forces accountable for the severe abuses of detainees arrested during postelection peaceful protests. Pylchenka defended presidential hopeful Viktar Babaryka and Presidium Coordination Council member Maryya Kalesnikava. Babaryka claimed the nullification of Pylchenka’s license was an attempt by authorities to deny him his rights to legal protection.

On September 9, authorities detained Coordination Council Presidium member and one of Babaryka’s defense attorneys Maksim Znak, along with Ilya Saley, a lawyer for the Coordination Council’s Presidium member Maryya Kalesnikava, after searching their apartments. Lawyers asserted that Znak was arrested in retaliation for his August 21 filing of a compliant with the Supreme Court calling for the August 9 presidential election results to be invalidated due to the widespread allegations of electoral fraud. Saley was arrested two days after Kalesnikava’s abduction by masked members of the security forces on charges of appealing for actions to damage the country’s national security and violently topple the government. Saley remained in detention until October 16, when he was placed under house arrest.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

The local human rights group Vyasna maintained what is widely considered a credible list of political prisoners in the country. As of December its list contained more than 160 names, including the cases of leading political opposition figures and their staff.

In one case, on September 2, authorities detained four employees of the IT company PandaDoc (Viktar Kuushynau, Dzmitry Rabtsevich, Yulia Shardyka, and Uladizlau Mikhalap). Two weeks earlier, the owner of the company, Mikita Mikada, publicly condemned political repression in the country and had colaunched a public initiative, Protect Belarus, aimed at financially supporting law enforcement officers who refused to take part in repression. Authorities charged the four employees with theft, for which conviction is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The charges were widely viewed as both retaliation against Mikada and intended to deter political activism by other technology companies. On October 12, authorities released Rabtsevich, Shardyka, and Mikhalap to house arrest, but the charges were not dropped. As of late December, Kuushynau remained in detention, and Vyasna considered all four PandaDoc employees to be political prisoners.

Former political prisoners continued to be unable to exercise some civil and political rights.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, but the government severely restricted this right and employed a variety of means to discourage demonstrations, disperse them, minimize their effect, and punish participants. The law provides for freedom of association, but the government restricted it and selectively enforced laws and regulations to restrict the operation of independent associations that might criticize the government.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

Only registered political parties, trade unions, and NGOs could request permission to hold a demonstration of more than 1,000 persons. Authorities usually denied requests by independent and opposition groups as well as those of self-organized citizens’ groups.

The law penalizes participation in unauthorized gatherings, the announcement of an intention to hold a mass event before securing official authorization, training protesters, financing public demonstrations, or soliciting foreign assistance “to the detriment” of the country. Convictions of some violations are punishable by sentences of up to three years’ imprisonment.

Persons with criminal records for crimes related to violating peace and order, statehood and governance, public security, safety, and public morals may not act as mass event organizers. Individuals who were fined for participating in unauthorized mass events also may not organize mass events for a period of one year from the imposition of the fine.

The law requires organizers to notify authorities of a mass event planned at a designated location no later than 10 days before the date of the event. Authorities must inform organizers of their denial no later than five days before the event. By law denials may be issued for one of two reasons, the event conflicts with one organized by a different individual or group, or the notification does not comply with regulations. Organizers of mass events outside designated locations must apply at least 15 days in advance for permission, and authorities are required to respond no later than five days prior to the scheduled event. This practice was not in line with international standards according to the OSCE Moscow Mechanism Report. Authorities generally granted permits for opposition demonstrations only if they were held at designated venues far from city centers. The OSCE Moscow Mechanism report noted that authorities had not demonstrated the need for administrative arrests or fines in connection with spontaneous demonstrations, which the United Nations considered necessary in a democratic society and proportionate to considerations such as national security or public safety.

The law includes a system of reimbursements for police, medical, and cleaning services that organizers of mass events must pay to hold an event. Authorities continued to cover costs associated with events that were officially sponsored at the local and national level. If an application for holding a mass event is approved, organizers must sign contacts for such services two days ahead of the event and reimburse all costs within 10 days. Organizers complained about high costs of such contracts. For example, police services for an event with more than 1,000 participants at a specially designated venue cost approximately 7,290 rubles ($2,990); at a nondesignated venue, the price is 1.5 times higher.

Authorities often formulated pretexts to deny permits for public demonstrations. For example, on July 30, opposition presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s rally in Minsk drew 63,000 participants, making it the largest campaign rally since the country’s independence. Tsikhanouskaya was subsequently blocked from holding additional campaign rallies by local Minsk authorities. On August 2, authorities announced that state events would take place every evening at every permitted campaign rally location between August 2 and August 8, despite the fact that Tsikhanouskaya had submitted an application in mid-July to hold rallies at locations in Minsk on August 5 and August 8.

Police detained and jailed opposition members who attempted to organize political events or rallies. For example, on October 27, a Minsk district court sentenced Zmitser Dashkevich, an opposition and civil society activist and former leader of the Malady Front opposition youth group, to 15 days’ imprisonment after being detained at an October 25 protest. Dashkevich was a key organizer of the Night of Assassinated Poets, an annual opposition commemorative event held October 29 at the Stalinist mass-killings site at Kurapaty to honor more than a hundred Belarusian poets, writers, and public figures killed in 1937.

During the year local authorities countrywide delayed answering or rejected applications for permission to stage various demonstrations. For example, during the year local authorities in Brest denied dozens of applications from a local group of residents who protested the construction and operations of a car battery plant. Police detained and fined several of them for violating the Law on Mass Events and holding rallies without government approval.

Authorities often used intimidation to discourage persons from participating in unauthorized demonstrations. Authorities videotaped political demonstrations and conducted identity checks as a form of intimidation, raising the threat that participants could be punished at a later date.

Between August and December, police detained more than 30,000 persons for participating in unsanctioned demonstrations. Police filed civil charges for participating in unauthorized mass events against the vast majority of individuals detained during protests. Such charges typically resulted in fines, short-term jail sentences of 10 to 15 days, or both. Police also opened at least 900 criminal cases against peaceful protesters and journalists between August 9 and December. In June and July, plainclothes and uniformed security officials also arbitrarily detained demonstrators who peacefully stood in lines along roads in many cities, with particular focus paid to individuals wearing opposition symbols or flying the white-red-white opposition-affiliated flag. Nondemonstrators were also detained by police. Other than during the mass detentions on August 9-11, the majority of individuals who were detained before and after the election were registered by police and released the same or next day, although authorities had the ability to apply short-term jail sentences at later dates.

Authorities detained a number of protest leaders, opposition members, and activists and jailed them for initial short-term sentences, then applied additional charges from earlier detentions to keep them jailed for longer periods of time. For example, after his May 6 arrest for participating in an unauthorized 2019 mass event, on May 29, Syarhey Tsikhanouski was detained again in Hrodna while participating in a signature-gathering event for his wife’s candidacy. On June 8, Tsikhanouski and six other detainees were charged with “disturbing public order” and “obstructing elections.” On June 16, a criminal case was opened against him for allegedly interfering in the election process and hindering the work of the Central Election Commission. On July 30, authorities announced additional criminal charges against Tsikhanouski, alleging “preparation for mass riots” and an investigation into charges of incitement of violence against police. As of December, Tsikhanouski remained in prison while investigations into these criminal charges proceeded (see also sections 1.d. and 3).

Security forces physically and psychologically abused individuals while breaking up events, while individuals were in detention vehicles, and once protesters were in detention facilities (see section 1.c.). Authorities used water cannons, stun grenades, rubber bullets, pepper spray, and batons to break up demonstrations.

On October 12, Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Henadz Kazakevich stated that law enforcement bodies would use “special equipment and lethal weapons if need be” to “guarantee the law in the country.” Authorities used live ammunition in a few isolated instances, which led to the death of two protesters (see section 1.a.).

Human rights groups reported authorities sought to mark or tag protesters who had opposition symbols, chanted pro-opposition slogans, or resisted arrest. Water in water cannons was also reportedly dyed to allow identification of protesters later. Authorities reportedly singled out marked individuals for higher levels of physical and psychological abuse in detention facilities.

Plainclothes officers detained individuals with opposition symbols or who had been identified as protest participants or police claimed were protest leaders. When faced with large crowds at unauthorized mass events, plainclothes officers detained, and sometimes beat, suspected rally participants at random along the periphery of events and forced many into unmarked vehicles. From May to December, masked plainclothes police officers often did not announce themselves or present documentation.

In some cases courts sentenced participants in peaceful protests to long prison terms under criminal charges, in particular when authorities claimed demonstrators had engaged in violence. From August 9-11, isolated instances of demonstrators throwing rocks, firecrackers, or Molotov cocktails were filmed by media. Rock throwing also reportedly occurred during protests September 23 after Lukashenka’s inauguration ceremony. The Ministry of Internal Affairs reported at least 10 instances of motorists hitting police from August 10-12. After August 11, the vast majority of demonstrations were peaceful and instances of violence on the part of demonstrators appeared to follow police use of force or violent detentions, especially by masked plainclothes officers. From June through November, isolated fist fights between security officers and demonstrators or attempts by demonstrators to resist arrest occurred in various cities, generally following security officer attempts to arbitrarily detain protesters or disperse peaceful crowds.

For example, on September 29, the Maladzechna Regional Court convicted and sentenced local residents Paval Piaskou and Uladzislau Eustsyahneyeu to up to three years and three months in a low-security prison. Authorities charged them with resisting riot police when on June 19 they attempted to prevent police from detaining a protester.

Since early May the Investigative Committee of Belarus initiated at least 900 criminal cases against individuals who were detained during protests on charges including participation in mass disturbances or riots, causing harm to national security, resistance, and violence or threat of violence against an official of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, hooliganism, incitement to hostility or hatred, and organization of or participation in actions violating public order. For example, investigators charged at least 231 individuals for allegedly organizing or participating in actions violating public order after detaining them at a protest on November 1. According to the report, this indicated a return to government criminalization of peaceful protests.

Participants in demonstrations faced retaliation at state-run places of education or employment. According to a Ministry of Education directive, educational institutions may expel students who engage in antigovernment or unsanctioned political activity and must ensure the proper ideological education of students. School officials, however, often cited poor academic performance or absence from classes as the official reason for expulsions. For example, in April administrators expelled a fourth-year student at Minsk State Linguistic University for allegedly not attending classes. The student claimed she was in a two-week quarantine for possible COVID-19 exposure. The student was a member of the executive board of the opposition-affiliated Union of Belarusian Students. From March 20 to March 23, she protested alongside other students near the university, handed out free medical masks, and chanted, “Ha-ha, I’ll die here!” a criticism of authorities’ COVID-19 response. The student claimed the university administration’s decision to expel her was a politically motivated. From October to December, more than 140 students were reportedly expelled due to their political views.

Freedom of Association

All NGOs, political parties, and trade unions must receive Ministry of Justice approval to be registered. A government commission reviews and approves all registration applications; it based its decisions largely on political and ideological compatibility with official views and practices.

Actual registration procedures required applicants to provide the number and names of founders along with a physical address in a nonresidential building for an office–a difficult burden in view of the tight financial straits of most NGOs–as well as individual property owners’ concerns that renting space to NGOs would invite government harassment. Individuals listed as members were more likely to face government pressure if the NGO fell afoul of authorities. Unregistered organizations that were unable to rent or afford office space reportedly attempted to use residential addresses, which authorities could then use as a reason to deny registration or claim the organizations were operating illegally. In 2019 authorities repealed the law criminalizing activities conducted on behalf of unregistered groups which had subjected convicted group members to penalties ranging from fines to two years’ imprisonment. The punishment was replaced with administrative fines.

The law on public associations prohibits NGOs from keeping funds for local activities at foreign financial institutions. The law also prohibits NGOs from facilitating provision of any support or benefits from foreign states to civil servants based on their political or religious views or ethnicity.

On August 27, a presidential decree on foreign aid entered into force. The decree provides that only registered NGOs may legally accept foreign grants and technical aid and only for a limited set of approved activities. NGOs must receive approval from the Interdepartmental Commission on Foreign Grant Aid before they may accept funds or register grants that fall outside of a list of approved aid categories. Authorities further divided the aid usage into tax-exempt categories and taxable categories, that latter of which would require a registration fee equal to 0.5 percent of the taxable aid. The decree also introduced penalties for the usage of unauthorized or undeclared aid by primary or secondary aid beneficiaries and allows authorities to terminate aid funding.

Authorities may close an NGO after issuing only one warning that it violated the law. The most common pretexts prompting a warning or closure were failure to obtain a legal address and technical discrepancies in application documents. The law allows authorities to close an NGO for accepting what it considered illegal forms of foreign assistance and permits the Ministry of Justice to monitor any NGO activity and to review all NGO documents. NGOs also must submit detailed reports annually to the ministry regarding their activities, office locations, officers, and total number of members.

The government continued to deny registration to some NGOs and political parties on a variety of pretexts, including “technical” problems with applications. Authorities frequently harassed and intimidated founding members of organizations to force them to abandon their membership and thus deprive their groups of the number of petitioners necessary for registration. Many groups had been denied registration on multiple occasions.

Authorities harassed, intimidated, and imprisoned members of the Coordination Council formed by opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya to work toward a peaceful resolution of the political crisis. At its formation on August 18, the group had approximately 70 members, seven of which were elected to form a presidium, and later grew to thousands of members. Within a month all but one of the members of the council’s presidium had been forced to flee the country or were in prison.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage, but the government consistently denied citizens this ability by not conducting elections according to international standards.

Since his election in 1994 to a four-year term as the country’s first president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka steadily consolidated power in the executive branch to dominate all branches of government, effectively ending any separation of powers among the branches. Flawed referendums in 1996 and 2004 amended the constitution to broaden his powers, extend his term in office, and remove presidential term limits. Subsequent elections, including the National Assembly elections held in November 2019 and the presidential election held on August 9, continued to deny citizens the right to exercise their will in an honest and transparent process including fair access to media and to resources.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: According to independent local observation groups, the August 9 presidential election was marred by numerous abuses, the use of administrative resources in favor of the incumbent, the absence of impartial election commissions, unequal access to media, coercion of voters to participate in early voting, nontransparent vote tabulation, and restrictions on independent observers. Irregularities identified by NGOs and independent observers raised significant doubts regarding authorities’ claims that Alyaksandr Lukashenka received 80 percent of votes during the presidential election.

Government pressure against potential opposition presidential candidates began three months prior to the presidential election and continued afterward. Authorities prior to the presidential election restricted the ability of challengers to register as candidates, restricted candidates from campaigning, pressured and detained presidential campaign teams, pressured citizens who showed support for opposition candidates, and detained press to limit opposition coverage.

The OSCE rapporteur’s Report under the Moscow Mechanism on Alleged Human Rights Violations related to the August 9 presidential election, released by the OSCE on November 5, detailed a wide range of allegations of electoral irregularities concerning: “1) nontimely invitation of international observers, 2) shortcomings in the appointments of election management bodies on all levels, 3) restrictions of the right to stand (for office), 4) limitations in election dispute resolution, 5) overall disregard for freedom of assembly, 6) unequal playing field for candidates, including nontransparency in campaign financing, 7) nontransparent early voting process, 8) overcrowding of polling stations, 9) missing checks and balances, lack of possibility for verifying the electoral results, and 10) inaccessibility of all steps of the electoral process for observation inhibiting the effective assessment of the elections.” The report stated that “in view of the evident shortcomings of the presidential elections which did not meet the basic requirements established on the basis of previous election monitoring and the observations by citizen the presidential election have to be evaluated as falling short of fulfilling the country’s international commitments regarding elections. Allegations that the presidential elections were not transparent, free or fair were found confirmed.”

Authorities detained and at times charged opposition campaign team members, including regional representatives, with allegedly participating in unauthorized mass events, which placed additional pressure on opposition campaign teams. Progovernment candidates or teams did not face similar police pressure.

During the campaign season, authorities arrested or forced into exile the candidates observers described as posing the greatest threats to his re-election.

On May 6, authorities detained presidential hopeful Syarhey Tsikhanouski and held him for 15 day for allegedly participating in an unauthorized mass event in December 2019, which kept him imprisoned past the May 15 deadline for registering signature collection groups for presidential candidates. Tsikhanouski was prevented from signing the documents necessary to register his signature collection group by the deadline. Although officials admitted Tsikhanouski’s candidacy met the election law criteria, they claimed his signature was required. Tsikhanouski’s wife, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, instead submitted her own name, which authorities accepted.

On May 29, Tsikhanouski was detained again in Hrodna while participating in a signature-gathering event for his wife’s candidacy (see section 2.b., Freedom of Peaceful Assembly). Authorities claimed he was involved in a brawl in which police were attacked. State media highlighted the detention and allegations against Tsikhanouski. Independent media and video footage captured by multiple bystanders showed a pair of women who followed Tsikhanouski and attempted to provoke him into arguments. He first spoke with and then attempted to avoid the pair. Police grabbed Tsikhanouski’s arm after one woman complained he was avoiding her questions. Members of the crowd moved to assist Tsikhanouski and separate him from police, during which one officer fell to the ground. Moments later, riot police detained Tsikhanouski and nine of his associates, including his local campaign representative who had not been near the alleged brawl. In June, Tsikhanouski was charged with various criminal offenses (see section 2.b.). As of December, Tsikhanouski remained in detention.

On June 18, authorities detained former Belgazprombank chairman and presidential hopeful Viktar Babaryka and his son Eduard while on their way to submit the necessary signatures to register his presidential candidacy with the Central Election Commission. Babaryka was taken to the facility of the State Control Committee’s Department of Financial Investigations for questioning, and authorities barred Babaryka’s lawyers from speaking with him. Independent media and human rights NGOs reported that, on June 21, authorities charged Babaryka with large-scale money laundering, tax evasion, large-scale theft, fraud, and bribery. The charges carry criminal penalties, including fines and multiyear prison sentences. The court rejected Babaryka’s appeal to have his detention overturned. Authorities declined to register Babaryka as a candidate after his campaign team gathered more than 400,000 valid signatures, citing inconsistencies in his income and property declaration as well as the “participation of a foreign organization in his election campaign.” NGOs stated that Babaryka was arrested in response to his political activities and general popularity during his presidential campaign. As of December, Babaryka and his son remained in detention.

On June 29, the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced it had started preliminary investigations into alleged “facts of illegal activities” committed by presidential candidate, High-Tech Park founder, and former diplomat Valery Tsapkala. On July 14, the Central Election Commission barred him from running in the presidential campaign claiming that many of his support signatures were invalid, and that information regarding his income declaration and wife’s assets was inaccurate. On July 21, a court in Minsk held an initial hearing without Tsapkala present on a lawsuit filed against him by a Turkish businessman who accused Tsapkala of bribery. On July 24, Tsapkala fled the country with his children after he heard authorities planned to arrest him (see section 2).

The government appeared to manipulate administrative procedures or the criteria for candidate registration in order to restrict political competition. In order to become a presidential candidate, authorities required each hopeful to collect 100,000 signatures. Citizens were allowed to sign for multiple candidates. In order for the signatures to count, authorities required campaign teams to have official representatives for each region who would submit the signatures with accompanying proof of citizenship to local level government offices. Citizen signatures were only valid in the districts where they were registered; this placed a higher burden on smaller campaign teams. For example, the Central Election Commission rejected Tsapkala’s application to run as a presidential candidate because he allegedly failed to submit enough valid signatures. Tsapkala’s campaign team claimed it submitted 200,000 signatures, but authorities only counted 75,000 as valid, causing him to fall short of the 100,000 threshold. Tsapkala appealed the decision, which the Supreme Court rejected on July 20.

According to the OSCE Moscow Mechanism Report, authorities introduced amendments that interfered with the transparency of the formation of election commissions, sought to decrease the proportion of independent and opposition participation in election commissions, and rejected or did not consider complaints and appeals concerning the nomination of election commissions. According to independent domestic monitors, authorities discriminated against the opposition members seeking seats on electoral commissions. Of 25 opposition members who applied for seats on territorial election commissions, only two were included. Of 545 opposition members applying for seats on precinct electoral commissions, only six were included. The other seats went to progovernment associations. As a result, observers maintained that these commissions remained biased against the opposition.

Authorities used an assortment of measures to support claims that vote tabulation on August 9 was legitimate. Key among these were restricting independent observation by domestic and international observers in favor of government-affiliated observers and claiming higher early voting participation to increase the number of ballots that could be fraudulently counted in Lukashenka’s favor.

Authorities restricted domestic and international observers during the election. After thousands of government-affiliated observers registered, on July 22, Central Election Commission chairwoman Lidziya Yarmoshyna stated that due to COVID-19, the government would limit observers at each polling station to three during early voting and five on election day. The majority of independent observers had not yet registered (as they had not expected registration to be limited, and assumed they had more time to register as deadlines for registration in previous elections had been much closer to the day of the election), and commission chairs at each polling station who controlled observation gave precedence to those who registered first.

There were extensive reports of state employees being coerced to vote early. Independent domestic observers who tallied voters estimated the early voting figure was inflated by a factor of two to three at some polling stations, undermining government claims early voting turnout was higher than election day turnout. On election day, independent observers at some precincts noted that combined early official voting numbers and tallies of observed voters on election day yielded a turnout of more than 100 percent of voters registered in the precinct. As in prior elections, voting tabulation remained nontransparent to observers.

Authorities allowed the diplomatic community to participate in observation, and noted COVID-19 restrictions would not apply to international observers. At vote-tabulation time, however, commission chairs at a number of poll stations claimed five observers were already in the room and so barred some international observers from observing tabulation.

Human rights monitors, independent observers, and the OSCE rapporteur under the Moscow Mechanism concluded that elections did not comply with international standards. Opposition candidates, their representatives, and independent observers reported authorities dismissed the vast majority of complaints they filed.

After authorities announced preliminary election results on August 10 claiming Lukashenka won the election, the government forced presidential contender Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya into exile. Results at the small number of polling stations that counted votes transparently showed that Tsikhanouskaya received more votes at these locations and suggested she could have received a majority of the votes or enough to force a second round runoff. According to independent NGO monitoring, the state’s control over all broadcast media was employed to promote the candidacy of the incumbent, while state-controlled outlets provided only critical coverage of opposition candidates, largely focused on criminal charges authorities had brought against them.

According to NGOs, the electoral process at all stages failed to comply with a number of international standards for democratic and fair elections. Numerous violations of international standards and the country’s law were reported.

Authorities largely denied or dismissed petitions and complaints about violations of the electoral code during various stages of the election. Courts received 484 appeals regarding decisions on the formation of election commissions, of which 415 were denied and 69 went without consideration. Independent observers who were part of the Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections, a volunteer election observation initiative, submitted approximately 3,000 complaints to various state bodies and higher election commissions during early voting and on election day. Authorities reportedly denied all complaints.

According to the OSCE, it required a timely invitation to observe the August 9 presidential election, meaning notification at least 12 weeks before election day. When the government announced the presidential election date on May 8 it also stated the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) would be invited to observe after the candidate registration period closed on July 14. The OSCE informed the country’s authorities it needed a timely invitation on several occasions and on July 15, the ODIHR Director announced that ODIHR had not received a timely invitation and would be unable to send an observation mission. Belarus authorities sent an invitation on July 15. When authorities were later criticized for a lack of ODIHR observers, the government blamed ODIHR, claiming the country had invited ODIHR to attend and monitor the vote. The OSCE Moscow Mechanism Report noted that the government sent an invitation four months before the 2019 National Assembly election, “which raises the suspicion that (delaying the invitation) was done on purpose in order to avoid international monitoring of part of the pre-election process, in particular the registration of candidates, where numerous problems were observed.”

In March international observers previously assessed that the November 2019 National Assembly elections also failed to meet international standards. According to the ODIHR, OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe election observation mission intermediate report, while the National Assembly elections proceeded calmly with a high number of candidates and observers, they did not meet important international standards for democratic elections and there was an overall disregard for fundamental freedoms of assembly, association, and expression.

The observation mission report on the National Assembly elections found that a high number of candidates stood for election, but an overly restrictive registration process inhibited the participation of opposition candidates. A limited amount of campaigning took place within a restrictive environment that, overall, did not provide for a meaningful or competitive political contest. Media coverage of the campaign did not enable voters to receive sufficient information about contestants. The election administration was dominated by the executive authority, limiting its impartiality and independence, and the integrity of the election process was not adequately safeguarded. Significant procedural shortcomings during the counting of votes raised concerns about whether results were counted and reported honestly, and an overall lack of transparency reduced the opportunity for meaningful observation.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Authorities routinely impeded the activities of opposition political parties and activists. Some opposition parties lacked legal status because authorities refused to register them, and the government routinely interfered with the right to organize, run for election, seek votes, and publicize views. The government allowed approximately six largely inactive but officially registered pro-Lukashenka political parties to operate freely. The government used its monopoly on broadcast media to disparage the opposition and promote pro-Lukashenka parties and to restrict the ability of opposition candidates to publicize their views. There were reports of government resources being used to benefit the incumbent, such as government officials campaigning for Lukashenka during working hours.

During the year authorities fined and arrested opposition political parties’ leaders for violating the Law on Mass Events and participating in numerous unauthorized demonstrations (see section 2). The law allows authorities to suspend parties for six months after one warning and close them after two. The law also prohibits political parties from receiving support from abroad and requires all political groups and coalitions to register with the Ministry of Justice. Members of parties that continued to operate when authorities refused to register them, such as the Belarusian Christian Democracy Party, continued to be subjected to harassment and arbitrary checks.

Central Election Commission chairwoman Lidziya Yarmoshyna reported that the COVID-19 restrictions would not apply to international observers, proxies of presidential candidates, members of the House of Representatives and members of the Council of the Republic, members of local councils who could observe the election in accordance with their status, or registered media. The vast majority of observers at polling stations and during voting and vote tabulation were government affiliated, while domestic independent observers waited outside poll stations and sought to count individuals who entered the premises. Domestic independent observers faced significant restrictions, including limitations on their ability to be present at polling stations, purportedly because of the threat of COVID-19. The government, however, did not take any other precautions related to the pandemic, such as enforcing social distancing, limiting the number of voters in buildings at any given time, or requiring the wearing of masks. In a number of cases, commissions removed independent domestic observers from polling stations for allegedly interfering with their work and banned them from videotaping or taking photographs. Some government officials responsible for polling sites called police to detain independent domestic observers for various alleged inappropriate behavior. Police for the most part took these observers to police stations, checked their documents, and released them. Human rights activists reported 86 domestic observers were detained during the early voting period.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, but the government’s patriarchal attitude disfavored women’s efforts to achieve positions of authority. Of the country’s 24 government ministers, only one was a woman. Women increasingly joined the opposition as leaders, served as vocal members of the opposition, led regular “women’s marches,” and participated in protests more broadly. Women told independent media that they were inspired to become more politically active after hearing Lukashenka’s remarks regarding his female opponent Tsikhanouskaya. He stated, “Our Constitution is not suitable for a woman. Our society is not ready to vote for a woman. Because the Constitution gives strong authority to the president.” In later remarks to clarify his statement, Lukashenka said that the presidency was a heavy burden for anyone, but female candidates in particular would be “unable to handle the pressures of the presidency.”

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