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 his election as president in 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 subsequent presidential elections fell well short of international standards. The November parliamentary elections 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 (KGB), the Financial Investigations Department of the State Control Committee, the Investigation Committee, and presidential security services, exercise police functions. The president has the authority to subordinate all security bodies to his personal command, and he maintained effective control over security forces.
Significant human rights issues included: arbitrary arrest and detention; life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; undue restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including censorship, site blocking, and the existence of laws regarding criminal libel and defamation of government officials; detention of journalists; severe restrictions on freedoms of peaceful assembly and 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 the authorities; restrictions on freedom of movement, in particular of former political prisoners whose civil rights remained largely restricted; restrictions on political participation, including persistent failure to conduct elections according to international standards; corruption in all branches of government; allegations of pressuring women to have abortions; and trafficking in persons.
Authorities at all levels often operated with impunity and failed to take steps to prosecute or punish officials in the government or security forces who committed human rights abuses.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press. The government did not respect these rights and enforced numerous laws to control and censor the public and media. Moreover, the state press propagated views in support of the president and official policies, without giving room for critical voices.
Freedom of Expression: Individuals could not criticize the president or the government publicly or discuss matters of general public interest without fear of reprisal. Authorities videotaped political meetings, conducted frequent identity checks, and used other forms of intimidation. Authorities also prohibited displaying certain historical flags and symbols and displaying placards bearing messages deemed threatening to the government or public order.
On June 10, a Minsk regional court convicted prominent painter and art performer Ales Pushkin for holding banners urging Belarus to join NATO as well as protesting “Russian Aggression in Europe” in the town of Krupki on June 6. Despite the fact that Pushkin staged his protest alone, authorities charged him with violating the Law on Mass Events and resisting police and fined him 204 rubles ($100).
The law also limits free speech by criminalizing actions such as giving information that authorities deem false or derogatory to a foreigner concerning the political, economic, social, military, or international situation of the country.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Government restrictions limited access to information and often resulted in media self-censorship. State-controlled media did not provide balanced coverage and overwhelmingly presented the official version of events. Appearances by opposition politicians on state media were rare and limited primarily to those required by law during election campaigns. Authorities warned, fined, detained, and interrogated members of independent media.
By law the government may close a publication, printed or online, after two warnings in one year for violating a range of restrictions on the press. Additionally, regulations give authorities arbitrary power to prohibit or censor reporting. The Ministry of Information may suspend periodicals or newspapers for three months without a court ruling. The law also prohibits media from disseminating information on behalf of unregistered political parties, trade unions, and NGOs.
Independent media outlets, including newspapers and internet news websites, continued to operate under restrictive media laws and most faced discriminatory publishing and distribution policies, including limiting access to government officials and press briefings, controlling the size of press runs of newspapers, and raising the cost of printing. For example, journalists from independent media outlets Euroradio, BelaPAN, and tut.by did not receive accreditation to cover President Lukashenka’s April 19 annual address to the nation and the parliament, allegedly because the press center did not have enough seats.
State-owned media dominated the information field and maintained the highest circulation through generous subsidies and preferences. There was no countrywide private television, and broadcast media space was dominated by state-owned and Russian stations.
Some international media continued to operate in the country but not without interference and prior censorship. Euronews and the Russian channels First Channel, NTV, and RTR were generally available, although only through paid cable services in many parts of the country and with a time delay that allowed the removal of news deemed undesirable. At times authorities blocked, censored, or replaced international news programs with local programming.
Violence and Harassment: Authorities continued to harass and detain local and foreign journalists routinely.
Security forces continually hampered efforts of independent journalists to cover demonstrations and protests in Minsk and across the country. The independent Belarusian Association of Journalists reported that authorities briefly detained an accredited German media outlet’s driver and impounded media equipment, which prevented the outlet from covering a rally on November 15.
On March 4, a Minsk district court convicted popular independent news portal tut.by editor in chief Maryna Zolatava of “executive inaction” allegedly for allowing tut.by journalists to access the subscription service of state-run news agency Belta without payment. The court sentenced her to a fine of 7,650 rubles ($3,740). In addition, Zolatava must pay Belta’s court costs of 6,000 rubles ($2,930). Criminal charges against several other journalists from tut.by and an independent press agency Belapan were dropped after the accused agreed to pay fines.
The government refused to register some foreign media, such as Poland-based Belsat Television and Radio Racyja, and routinely fined freelance journalists working for them. As of September 25, at least 17 journalists were fined in 38 cases for not having government accreditation or for cooperating with a foreign media outlet. According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, freelance journalists received fines totaling more than 35,000 rubles ($17,200). Most of the fines were imposed on journalists working for Belsat Television.
In October the Foreign Ministry refused the 11th accreditation application of freelancer Viktar Parfyonenka to work for Radio Racyja.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government exerted pressure on the vast majority of independent publications to exercise self-censorship, warning them not to report on certain topics or criticize the government. The government tightly and directly controlled the content of state-owned broadcast and print media. Television channels are required to air at least 30 percent local content. Local independent television stations operated in some areas and reported local news, although most were under government pressure to forgo reporting on national and sensitive issues or risk censorship.
According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office of Democratic Initiatives and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) monitoring report, during the November 17 parliamentary elections campaign at least seven opposition candidates’ prerecorded television speeches were not aired, and state newspapers censored or refused to publish a number of opposition candidates’ campaign platforms.
Authorities allowed only state-run radio and television networks to broadcast nationwide. The government used this national monopoly to disseminate its version of events and minimize alternative or opposing viewpoints.
Authorities warned businesses not to advertise in newspapers that criticized the government. As a result, independent media outlets operated under severe budgetary constraints.
Libel/Slander Laws: Libel and slander are criminal offenses. There are large fines and prison sentences of up to four years for defaming or insulting the president. Penalties for defamation of character make no distinction between private and public persons. A public figure who is criticized for poor performance while in office may sue both the journalist and the media outlet that disseminated the critical report.
On April 9, police searched Belsat Television’s Minsk office and confiscated computer equipment. The Investigative Committee press service indicated that the search was related to an unspecified defamation case. According to Belsat journalist Ales Zaleuski, the criminal case might have been connected to an article in which Belsat Television incorrectly reported that Andrei Shved, the head of the Committee for Forensic Examination, had been detained. Belsat Television issued a retraction and apology, and the committee returned the computer equipment on April 11.
On April 18, a Brest district court convicted popular video blogger Siarhei Piatrukhin on charges of defaming and insulting police officers and sentenced him to a fine of 9,180 rubles ($4,480). In addition, Piatrukhin was ordered to pay 7,500 rubles ($3,660) in damages to police officers.
National Security: Authorities frequently cited national security as grounds for censorship of media.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly; however, the government severely restricted this right. Authorities employed a variety of means to discourage demonstrations, disperse them, minimize their effect, and punish the participants. The law provides for freedom of association, but the government restricted it and selectively enforced laws and registration regulations to restrict the operation of independent associations that might criticize the government.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government at times restricted the right of citizens, former political prisoners in particular, to foreign travel.
In-country Movement: Passports serve as a form of identity, and authorities required them for permanent housing, work, and hotel registration. Police continued to harass selectively individuals who lived at a location other than their legal place of residence as indicated by mandatory stamps in their passports.
The law also requires persons who travel to areas within 15 miles of the border (aside from authorized crossing points) to obtain an entrance pass.
Foreign Travel: The government’s database of persons banned from traveling abroad contained the names of individuals who possessed state secrets, faced criminal prosecution or civil suits, or had outstanding financial obligations. Authorities informed some persons by letter that their names were in the database; others learned only at border crossings. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and security agencies, border and customs services, and financial investigation departments have a right to place persons on “preventive” surveillance lists.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs is also required to track citizens working abroad, and employment agencies must report individuals who do not return from abroad as scheduled.
Exile: The law does not allow forced exile, but sources asserted that security forces continued to threaten some opposition members with bodily harm or prosecution if they did not leave the country, and many were in self-imposed exile.
Many university students who were expelled or believed they were under the threat of expulsion for their political activities opted for self-imposed exile and continued their studies abroad.
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 has 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 presidential elections held in 2015 and parliamentary elections held in November, continued to deny citizens the right to express their will in an honest and transparent process including fair access to media and to resources.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, and the government regularly prosecuted officials alleged to be corrupt; however, the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators reflected that corruption was a serious problem in the country.
On March 19, the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) declared the country noncompliant with its anticorruption standards. The government did not publish evaluation or compliance reports, which according to GRECO “casted a dark shadow over Belarus’s commitment to preventing and combating corruption and to overall cooperation with GRECO.”
Individuals dismissed for lower-level corruption face a five-year ban on public-service employment, while those found to have committed more serious abuses are banned indefinitely from government employment. The law also allows seizure of property worth more than 25 percent of a public servant’s yearly income for those found guilty of corrupt practices. The law provides for public monitoring of the government’s anticorruption efforts. On May 10, the president signed a decree forbidding those convicted on corruption charges to be released early or on probation. It also prohibited such jail terms from being replaced with softer penalties. On October 18, President Lukashenka said his “government personnel list had some 850 names who enjoy certain powers and are granted certain immunity and who cannot be arrested without the president’s consent.”
Corruption: According to official sources, most corruption cases involved soliciting and accepting bribes, fraud, and abuse of power, although anecdotal evidence indicated such corruption usually did not occur as part of day-to-day interaction between citizens and minor state officials.
The absence of independent judicial and law enforcement systems, the lack of separation of powers, and a harried independent press largely barred from interaction with a nontransparent state bureaucracy made it virtually impossible to gauge the scale of corruption or combat it effectively.
The Prosecutor General’s Office is responsible for organizing and coordinating activities to combat corruption, including monitoring law enforcement operations, analyzing the efficacy of implemented measures, supervising engaged parties, and drafting further legislation.
The most corrupt sectors were state administration and procurement, the industrial sector, the construction industry, health care, and education. In September the Supreme Court reported that from January to June, courts convicted 463 individuals “on corruption-related charges.”
There were numerous corruption prosecutions during the year, but prosecutions remained selective, nontransparent, and in some cases appeared politically motivated, according to independent observers and human rights advocates. For example, on July 4, the Supreme Court sentenced former presidential aide and Hrodna region chief inspector Siarhei Rauneika to 12 years in prison and property confiscation in a closed-door trial. The government charged Rauneika with accepting bribes of up to $200,000.
During the year at least 93 head doctors from the regions and Minsk, officials of the healthcare ministry, including a deputy minister, representatives of local pharmaceutical productions, and owners of pharmacy businesses were investigated for numerous accounts of corruption related to procurement of medicines and equipment. While a number of those cases continued at the end of the year, more than a dozen doctors and officials received sentences of up to nine years in prison. Former deputy health minister Ihar Lasitski was sentenced to six years in prison for accepting bribes.
Financial Disclosure: Anticorruption laws require income and asset disclosure by appointed and elected officials, their spouses, and members of households who have reached legal age and continue to live with them in the same household. According to the law, specialized anticorruption departments within the Prosecutor General’s Office, the KGB, and the Internal Affairs Ministry monitor and verify anticorruption practices, and the prosecutor general and all other prosecutors are mandated to oversee the enforcement of anticorruption law. These declarations were not available to the public; an exception applies to candidates running in presidential, parliamentary, and municipal elections. There are administrative sanctions and disciplinary penalties for noncompliance.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
There were a number of active domestic human rights NGOs, although authorities were often hostile to their efforts, restricted their activities, selectively cooperated with them, and were not responsive to their views.
Two prominent human rights NGOs–the BHC and the Center for Legal Transformations–operated as registered entities. The government refused to register a number of others, placing them at risk of fines of up to 1,280 rubles ($625). Some unregistered NGOs, including Vyasna and Legal Assistance to the Population, continued to operate.
Authorities at times harassed both registered and unregistered human rights organizations. They subjected them to inspections and threats of deregistration and reportedly monitored their correspondence and telephone conversations. The government largely ignored reports issued by human rights NGOs and rarely met with unregistered groups. State-run media rarely reported on human rights NGOs and their activities.
During the year the BHC’s bank accounts remained blocked due to long-standing tax arrears related to foreign funding in the early 2000s, but the government allowed the committee to operate without other interference.
Authorities were generally reluctant to engage on human rights problems with international human rights NGOs or other human rights officials, and international NGO representatives often had difficulty gaining admission to the country. Authorities routinely ignored local and international groups’ recommendations on improving human rights in the country and requests to stop harassing the human rights community.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: In September 2018 the UN Human Rights Council appointed Anais Marin as the new special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the country and extended her mandate for another year on July 12. The government continued to speak against “the politicized” mandate of the rapporteur and did not recognize it. The rapporteur’s July report indicated, “the absence of significant improvements and the necessity for the government to clearly demonstrate its commitment to addressing long-standing criticism by introducing concrete, durable changes.”
Government Human Rights Bodies: The government took minor steps to implement the Human Rights Action Plan adopted in 2016 to outline, in the government’s words, “main activities for us to implement our international obligations” on human rights. While independent human rights groups, including the human rights center Vyasna and the BHC, welcomed the plan’s adoption, they also noted that the documents lack specific target goals or results assessment mechanisms.
A standing commission on human rights in the lower chamber of parliament was ineffective.