c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and Other Related Abuses
The law prohibits such practices. Nevertheless, the Committee for State Security (KGB), riot police, and other security forces, often without identification and wearing street clothes and masks, regularly used excessive force indiscriminately against detainees, peaceful protesters, members of the independent media, and ordinary citizens. Security forces also reportedly mistreated individuals during investigations. As reported by human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), police regularly beat and tortured persons during detentions and arrests. Human rights groups also reported abuses in police custody, including severe beatings; use of electric shocks; psychological humiliation, such as forcing detainees to undress to humiliate them; videotaped forced confessions made public on social media; and other efforts to exhaust detainees mentally and physically.
For example, police violently beat and detained demonstrators for protesting Russia’s war against Ukraine on February 27. A Minsk resident told the human rights organization Vyasna that during the protest three or four law enforcement officers approached him, threw him on the ground, and beat him with police batons. The man reported being hit at least 14 times, including at least five blows to the head. He was then thrown in a van and taken to the police station, where he complained of serious pain but was denied medical treatment. He was then placed in an overcrowded cell with 20 other persons, despite the cell being made for six persons. He was once again denied medical treatment at the pretrial detention facility. He was tried three days later and sentenced to 10 days’ imprisonment. After his trial, authorities placed the man in cell No. 19, which was called “Crematorium 19” by inmates due to the unbearable heat and stuffiness. One inmate explained, “We were dripping sweat. We even stripped down to our underwear. We did everything we could, but there was still no air to breathe.”
On November 14, multiple detainees held at Minsk-based facilities during September through November told independent media the Interior Ministry’s Main Department for Combatting Organized Crime and Corruption (GUBOPiK) officers beat them on the legs and buttocks to such a degree they could not sit or lay down for days. They also reported sleep deprivation, having to sleep on cold cement floors in cells with no hot running water.
On March 30, authorities posted forced confession videos of at least 38 detained railway workers who were presumably part of the Telegram channel “Community of Railway Workers,” deemed as “extremist” by authorities for calls to commit “terrorist acts” and sabotage of railways. In many of the confession videos, individuals condemned joining the Telegram community and calling for acts of sabotage.
One resident of Minsk, detained by GUBOPiK officers in April, reported being subjected to electric shocks during her detention. The woman explained she was told to sit backwards on her chair, which she assumed was so she couldn’t see who was tasing her. Meanwhile, authorities lifted her jeans, exposing her legs and tased her. She explained she suffered short electric shocks that made her legs cramp and become numb, preventing her from being able to walk immediately after. She sustained marks on her legs from the electric shocks for 10 days. The woman was charged with hooliganism and later detained a second time allegedly for using foul language in the police department. During her second detention, she was placed in a two-person cell with 17 other persons where the lights remained on, and prisoners were prevented from sleeping.
On February 27, the date of a nationwide constitutional referendum, police arrested at least 900 individuals for protesting the referendum and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Authorities arrested approximately another 200 the day following the referendum. Those detained were sentenced for up to 30 days and kept in overcrowded and freezing cells, where they were reportedly beaten, deprived of sleep, food, medical aid, and personal hygiene products.
On April 6, Deputy Interior Minister Henadz Kazakevich reported police apprehended four “saboteurs” for destroying railway infrastructure to prevent movement of Russian military equipment bound for Ukraine. He reported the individuals were later shot in the legs during their arrest after they attempted to escape. He did not justify their violent arrests, but human rights observers assessed the authorities’ response was incommensurate and intended to intimidate opposition activists against further destruction of railway equipment.
Impunity for abuses remained a serious problem in the security forces. As of year’s end, there was no indication authorities had investigated or taken any action against officers involved in widespread human rights abuses following the 2020 presidential election. Among the myriad unpunished abuses by authorities documented after the 2020 election 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; excessive use of tear gas; and up to three days of deprivation of food, drinking water, hygiene products, the use of toilets, sleep, and medical assistance. Conversely, the government prosecuted former law enforcement and security officers who tried to launch investigations against their colleagues or individuals who advised officials who were dismissed for political reasons or resigned in protest of police violence. For example, on May 12, a Minsk district court sentenced former assistant prosecutor Yauhen Babak to four years in prison on charges of allegedly participating in actions that violated public order and incited social hatred, charges deemed by human rights groups as politically motivated. Babak was one of the few prosecutors who attempted to investigate police for assaulting bikers during the peaceful election-related protests in 2020. He subsequently resigned in protest after his leadership suppressed his cases.
In a similar case, on December 2, the Minsk city court convicted former investigator Mikita Starazhenka, who resigned in 2020 after his refusal to open a criminal case against a severely beaten 16-year-old protester in Minsk on charges of leaking personal data of law enforcement officers and inciting social hatred. Starazhenka was sentenced to seven years in prison. On December 26, the Minsk city court convicted former investigator and political prisoner Yauhen Yushkevich, arrested in April 2021, on charges of inciting social hatred, participating in the 2020 protests, and organizing mass riots, and sentenced him to 11 years in prison. According to human rights observers, these charges were politically motivated in response to a project Yushkevich established in 2020 to provide training to public servants, law enforcement, and security officers who were dismissed for political reasons or decided to quit their service in protest of the fraudulent election and police brutality.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison and detention center conditions remained poor and, in many cases, posed threats to life and health.
Abusive Physical Conditions: According to former prison inmates and human rights lawyers, gross overcrowding; lack of access to food, potable water, medicine, warm clothing, personal hygiene products, and bedding; inadequate access to basic or emergency medical care; and confinement in cells for long periods without an opportunity for movement, exercise, or use of showers or sanitary facilities remained serious problems. Such conditions were especially common in facilities that hold political prisoners. Inmates reported that prison officials deliberately denied them access to food, potable water, medicine, warm clothing, personal hygiene products, bedding, and necessary medical care, sometimes for several days, as a form of retribution for opposing the regime and exercising fundamental freedoms. Overall sanitation was poor.
Authorities made minimal public health efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, while simultaneously using COVID-19 as a pretext to restrict access to visitors and limit distribution of food, hygiene products, and clothing. For example, former detainees reported that individuals with COVID-19 symptoms were rarely isolated and did not receive proper medical assistance. Observers believed tuberculosis, pneumonia, HIV, AIDS, COVID-19, and other communicable diseases were widespread in prisons because of generally poor medical care and public health measures. Multiple individuals held on politically motivated charges reported administration continuously placing homeless persons with fleas, lice, bedbugs, and various communicable diseases, including COVID-19, into cells with them.
According to a relative, political prisoner Halina Dzerbysh, convicted on October 17 and sentenced to 20 years in prison for terrorism-related charges and conspiring to take over state powers, was denied an abdominal ultrasound scan. The relative said there was also no dentist at the Hrodna prison, where Dzerbysh was held in pretrial detention, and detainees were told “to take painkillers” and were denied medical and dental treatment.
During the year, many individuals reported politically motivated and indiscriminate detention for periods up to 90 days in prison conditions designed to punish those who had sought to peacefully express their political views. This included gross overcrowding and routinely forcing dozens into cells designed for five individuals, when nearby cells were empty. Former detainees told independent media that while nonpolitical inmates were allowed short walks and showers, political inmates were intentionally deprived of mattresses, food parcels from families, drinking water, ventilation, or sanitation, and rats and other vermin were common in their cells. The spouse of political prisoner Paulina Sharenda-Panasiuk told the Lithuanian press on April 30 that the prison administration in Homyel, where she was serving her term, placed Sharenda-Panasiuk in solitary confinement for more than 80 days at the end of 2021, at least 60 days of which she was banned from walks in the fresh air and from taking showers. The administration reportedly penalized her for refusing to work and violating other internal prison regulations.
Political prisoners appeared to face worse prison conditions than those of the general prison population, including more reports of torture and severe abuses.
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.
Corruption in prisons was a serious problem, and observers noted that parole decisions often depended on bribes to prison personnel. Parole decisions could also hinge on a prisoner’s political views.
Administration: 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, which were subsequently dismissed as unjustified. 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.
Prisoners and detainees had limited access to visitors, and meetings with families or defense lawyers were sometimes denied for political detainees or as a common punishment for alleged “disciplinary violations.”
Authorities generally prevented prisoners from holding non-Orthodox religious services and performing ceremonies that did not comply with prison regulations, despite legal provisions for such practice. Belarusian Orthodox churches, however, were located at several prison facilities, and Orthodox clergy were generally allowed access to conduct services.
Independent Monitoring: Authorities prohibited any observation of detention conditions by independent observers, hindering the verification of conditions former political prisoners reported as purposefully decrepit and designed to punish individuals for their political dissent.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary detention, but government officials routinely ignored it. Authorities, including plainclothes security officers, continued to routinely arrest and detain thousands of individuals throughout the year for exercising fundamental freedoms, opposing Lukashenka’s dictatorship, or for actively supporting the prodemocracy movement.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
By law, police must request permission from a prosecutor to detain a person for more than three hours. There were reports that persons were detained without judicial authorization well beyond this limit. Detainees have the right to petition the court system regarding the legality of their detention, but authorities consistently suppressed, ignored, and dismissed such appeals. Appeals to challenge detentions were generally denied.
An individual may be detained for up to 72 hours without charge, at which point law enforcement officials must make a formal decision on whether the individual should be released (with or without charges) or held longer as a suspect. Authorities often held detainees arrested in cases widely seen as politically motivated for longer than 72 hours. If within the first 72 hours of detention an individual is determined to be a suspect, authorities may hold him or her for up to 20 days without filing formal charges, and for up to 18 months after filing charges. In some cases, however, authorities detained persons beyond 18 months. For example, in 2020, officers from the Financial Investigations Department of the State Control Committee detained Eduard Babaryka, son of 2020 presidential hopeful Viktar Babaryka, on tax evasion charges widely viewed by human rights groups as politically motivated. As of year’s end, he remained in pretrial detention and reportedly received additional charges of inciting social hatred and organizing mass riots.
The law stipulates 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 or during interrogations. 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, ignored, and dismissed such appeals. The country has no functioning bail system.
There were reports of detainees held incommunicado. During the year some individuals arrested on politically motivated allegations of “terrorism” were held incommunicado for several days before authorities contacted their families.
Arbitrary Arrest: Authorities detained political scientists, political leaders, presidential campaign participants, human rights defenders, journalists, opposition leaders and members, civil society activists, demonstrators, and ordinary citizens for reasons widely considered to be politically motivated. Authorities permitted and abetted security officers in taking an “arrest first, ask questions later” approach with no accountability or repercussions for security officers who made wrongful arrests or committed other abuses during or after arrests. Security officers could arrest at their own discretion, refused to identify themselves, and did not need to announce the reason for arrests. Once detaining an individual, security officers forcefully obtained their cell phones, including messages, social media, contacts, and videos and photographs, all of which was often used as a pretext to charge detainees with extremist or opposition activities. Communications with other individuals deemed critical of authorities, antiwar, or extremist, often led police to subsequently detain those interlocutors as well. Authorities also checked whether detainees made any donations to so-called extremist organizations and in support of political prisoners, their families, prodemocracy efforts, or expat communities.
On October 18, police detained Darya Losik, spouse of political prisoner and Radio Liberty consultant Ihar Losik, at their home in Baranavichy. According to state media, she was accused of giving interviews to the Polish-based Belsat media outlet, declared extremist by the regime, but credible human rights organizations believed the regime targeted Darya Losik to retaliate further against her husband (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees, and Property Seizure and Restitution subsections).
On March 3, authorities detained six parishioners leaving an antiwar prayer gathering at the Belarusian Orthodox Holy Spirit Cathedral in downtown Minsk. Security forces filmed inside and outside of the church and stopped some parishioners to check their identity documents at the entrance, while police vans waited outside. The detainees were subsequently released after questioning and warned against holding additional unauthorized mass events.
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention remained a problem, particularly for those facing politically motivated charges who were regularly held for indeterminate periods with no sense of when their cases would be heard. Observers believed authorities utilized the pretrial detention process to keep political detainees in a state of psychological and emotional uncertainty. Observers believed there were several reasons for the delays, including political interference and motivations, additional 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. Generally, even in politically motivated cases, the period of pretrial detention was accurately calculated and subtracted from the final length of the conviction and the length of pretrial detention did not exceed the statutory maximum sentence for charged crimes.
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 or predetermined the outcomes of trials.
According to human rights groups, prosecutors and investigators wielded excessive and imbalanced authority because they may extend detention periods without the permission of judges. Defense lawyers were often unable to examine investigation files, attend 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. All communications between defense lawyers and their clients were monitored in pretrial detention.
The Law on the Bar and Legal Profession prohibits defense lawyers from working either independently or for private law firms and requires them instead to work in Ministry of Justice-approved “legal bureaus.” The state-controlled National Bar Association oversaw operations of legal bureaus in the country. The law prohibits defense lawyers from owning or sharing ownership in a legal or consultative firm or a real estate agency, and from representing the interests of any other commercial entity in which they have an ownership stake.
According to a 2021 report by Lawyers for Lawyers, the International Bar Association Human Rights Institute, and the American Bar Association, authorities engaged in tactics that interfered with the independence of lawyers. The report noted “decisions about the continued practice of lawyers within the legal profession are not made by an independent entity,” but rather by the Ministry of Justice. There were reports of retaliatory prosecution and disbarment of defense lawyers representing political campaigns, opposition leaders, and activists. For example, on June 9, the Justice Ministry disbarred at least five Minsk-based and regional defense lawyers after they purportedly failed to pass “qualification tests.” Political prisoner Maksim Znak, a defense attorney for political prisoner and 2020 presidential hopeful Viktar Babaryka, was also disbarred in January. Znak continued to serve a 10-year jail sentence on what human rights organizations deem politically motivated charges of “conspiring to take over state powers in an unconstitutional way,” calling for “action to inflict damage to the national security,” and leading an “extremist group.” During the year, the Justice Ministry disbarred dozens of other defense lawyers and arrested at least seven on various politically motivated charges, including for their purported dissemination of information about prosecutors, judges, and other public officials engaged in various politically motivated court cases.
The law provides for the right to a fair, timely, and public trial, but authorities systematically disregarded this right. Further, trials for those facing political motivated charges were regularly held behind closed doors. In many politically motivated cases, authorities extended investigations, leaving detainees jailed without knowledge of when their trials would commence.
The law provides for the presumption of innocence. Nevertheless, the lack of judicial independence, the state media’s practice of reporting on high-profile cases as if guilt were already certain, and the widespread limits on defense rights regularly denied defendants the presumption of innocence.
By law criminal defendants may be held up to 10 or 20 days, depending on the statute charged, without being notified of charges.
The law provides defendants the right to attend proceedings, but some defendants were tried in absentia. On July 21, Lukashenka signed amendments to the criminal procedures code, allowing investigations and criminal cases to be conducted in absentia for suspects and defendants located outside of the country. This includes prosecution and trial in absentia for crimes against the peace, security of humanity, state, threats to national security, terrorism, genocide, state treason, establishment of an extremist organization, participation in mass riots, and calls for sanctions. Criminal cases with such accusations had already been filed against nearly all leaders and key activists of the democratic opposition in exile along with many prominent businesspersons who fled prosecution. There was broad consensus among human rights organizations these amendments were designed specifically to target the democratic opposition forced into exile.
On December 12, the Minsk city court started hearing the first case in absentia against five persons – Yanina Sazanovich, Dzmitry Navosha, Daniil Bahdanovich, Valerya Zaniamonskaya, and Volha Vysotskaya – who reportedly administered the Telegram channel “Black Book of Belarus” from exile. The five were charged with inciting social hatred and illegally handling personally identifiable information of law enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges, and other public officials. On December 16, the Prosecutor General’s Office submitted in absentia criminal cases against Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Pavel Latushka, and other prominent political opposition figures. On December 26, authorities issued a ruling in the first trial in absentia against two founders of the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Foundation (BSSF), sentencing Alyaksandr Apeikin and Olympian Alyaksandra Herasimenya to 12 years in prison each (see also “Transnational Repression” subsection.)
Additionally, the Investigative Committee chair, or the KGB chair with the consent of the prosecutor general, may authorize trial in absentia for individuals on other charges. Trials in absentia may also be held if a foreign state refuses to extradite the suspect or if a foreign government does not respond to extradition requests six months after the prosecutor general submitted them. On May 12, Investigative Committee chair Dzmitry Hora said prosecution in absentia would apply to those “who have inflicted significant damage to our state…and leaders of foundations that financed extremist and terrorist activities.” Hora claimed the government had to adopt these changes to respond to national security threats and due to “consistent denial of extradition requests by foreign states.” Hora pointed specifically to Lithuania’s refusal to extradite prominent opposition leader and former presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya as justification.
Authorities worked to minimize trial observation by independent observers, including accredited foreign diplomats, hindering the verification of trial procedures and adherence to the rule of law. Authorities restricted independent journalists and members of the public from observing trials, in particular those of a political nature. Authorities limited or barred independent observation by claiming well into the year that restrictions were in place due to COVID-19, in addition to asserting the courtroom was full, or filling the courtroom to capacity with state journalists and individuals associated with the state.
The law provides for access to legal counsel for the defendant and requires courts to appoint a lawyer for those who cannot afford one. The law provides for the right to choose legal representation freely; however, a presidential decree prohibits NGO members who are lawyers from representing individuals other than members of their own organizations in court. The government’s attempts to disbar attorneys who represented political opponents of the government further limited defendants’ choice of counsel. The government also required defense attorneys to sign nondisclosure statements that prohibited them from releasing any information regarding the case to the public, media, or defendants’ family members. During the year, at least 50 defense attorneys were penalized or disbarred after they provided or attempted to provide a sound defense for political prisoners.
In cases of administrative charges, including for participation in unauthorized peaceful protests, resisting law enforcement officers, and hooliganism, judges often did not inform arrested individuals of their right to defense counsel, prevented defendants against hiring an attorney, and dismissed counsels’ requests for additional witnesses testifying at trials.
By law, defendants must have adequate time to prepare a defense. Facilities, however, were not adequate, and in many cases meetings with lawyers were denied, restricted, or were not confidential.
Although by law defendants may ask for their trials to be conducted in Belarusian, many judges and prosecutors were not fluent in this language, rejected motions for interpreters, and proceeded in Russian, one of the official languages of the country. Interpreters are provided when the defendant speaks neither Belarusian nor Russian.
The law allows defendants to confront witnesses and present evidence on their own behalf, but authorities regularly denied these rights. In addition, riot police or other security officers who testified against defendants in these cases did not identify themselves or testified wearing balaclavas due to “concern for their security.”
By law defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. In many cases, however, authorities reportedly compelled or coerced suspects to testify against themselves or other suspects, including confessing their guilt, in politically motivated cases or those in which the authorities did not have compelling evidence. In such cases, authorities reportedly claimed sentences would be more lenient or defendants would receive other benefits if they confessed or testified against themselves. Human rights activists claimed these tactics were coercive and politically motivated. There were also reports of authorities coercing suspects into signing confessions and other statements, including pardon requests predicated on admission of guilt. Courts often allowed statements obtained by force and threats of bodily harm during interrogations to be used against defendants.
For example, during hearings at the Hrodna prison in May and June, at least four detainees deemed political prisoners by human rights organizations who were charged with “facilitating terrorism” said they were “morally and physically tortured” to testify against themselves during the investigation. One of them, Pavel Rezanovich, who was detained and charged along with his mother Lyubou Rezanovich, said that during interrogations he was forced to sign confession papers and admit guilt after KGB and investigators threatened his wife would be arrested. Rezanovich claimed he heard his mother being beaten and screaming from pain in the corridors from his cell. Another defendant in this case, Halina Dzerbysh, who was suffering from cancer and heart failure, reported that investigators pressured her by placing her in isolation wards for up to 10 days and withholding medicine even when she “lost consciousness.”
Authorities coerced political prisoners into signing pardons that included admissions of guilt and payments to the state as “compensation” for their “offenses.” On September 28, the Minsk city court convicted journalist Ksenia Lutskina, detained by authorities in December 2020 on politically motivated charges, of conspiring to take over state authority in an unconstitutional way and sentenced her to eight years in prison. Over the course of a year, she refused to sign a letter addressed to Lukashenka begging forgiveness for her “crimes” and seeking his pardon. Authorities also withheld medical treatment to Lutskina after her health deteriorated severely, likely due to a brain tumor that had previously been in remission. Former political prisoner and Radio Liberty journalist Aleh Hruzdzilovich, released on September 19, told the press that his fellow inmate and political prisoner Mikalai Papeka, was sentenced to two years in prison on charges of participating in the September 2020 postelection protests in Brest, after he repeatedly refused to sign a pardon.
Defendants had the right to appeal convictions, and many did so, but appeals courts upheld the verdicts of the lower courts in most cases.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
Local human rights groups collectively maintained what was widely considered a credible and authoritative list of political prisoners in the country. As of year’s end, the list, which appeared on human rights group Vyasna’s website, contained more than 1,443 names, including leading political opposition figures and their staff.
According to human rights defenders, the government regularly falsely charged peaceful dissidents, journalists, members of the democratic opposition, and ordinary citizens with violence without evidence. These allegations generally attempted to equate the perpetuation of the regime with national security, arguing that anyone who did not support the regime was a national security threat, in effect criminalizing the political opinions of the opposition and others exercising fundamental freedoms. Authorities described and prosecuted peaceful political opponents, organizations, independent journalists, and the general expression of fundamental freedoms as “extremist” or “terrorist” threats to national security, government officials, or government supporters. The number of individuals on the regime’s list of “extremists” increased dramatically during the year to more than 2,100 by December.
Political prisoners were routinely and deliberately subject to inhuman prison conditions (see section 1.c., Prison and Detention Center Conditions), including gross overcrowding, shortages of food, medicine, heating and warm clothing, personal hygiene products, and bedding as well as a lack of access to basic or emergency medical care and clean drinking water.
Authorities targeted political prisoners for additional penalties and extension of sentences based on minor or alleged violations of prison regulations.
Authorities generally prevented human rights or humanitarian organizations from visiting political prisoners. Former political detainees said they lacked the same protections as nonpolitical detainees and were punished in detention and often subjected to more severe abuse and poorer conditions than other prisoners (see section 1.c.). Former political prisoners continued to be unable to exercise some civil and political rights.
Political prisoners were detained for purportedly committing a number of crimes, including most commonly: incitement of hatred; illegal collection and dissemination of information about private life; defamation; insulting a government official; intentional destruction or damage to property; unlawful acts involving firearms, ammunition, and explosives; malicious hooliganism; money laundering; bribe taking; tax evasion; destruction of official documents; acts of terrorism or attempted acts of terrorism; intentional damage of a vehicle or communication lines; organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order, or active participation in them; high treason; unauthorized access to computer information; calls for actions aimed at causing harm to national security; resistance to a police officer or other person guarding public order; fraud committed by an organized group or on a large scale; violence or threat of violence against an Internal Affairs Ministry employee; incitement to hatred; illegal border crossing; participation in a criminal or extremist organization; conspiracy to seize power in an unconstitutional manner; creation of an extremist formation; financing the activities of an extremist group; attempted murder of a police officer; illicit trafficking of narcotic drugs; desecration of state symbols; organization or participation in riots; obstruction of the exercise of electoral rights; justifying Nazism, and abuse of historical and cultural values.
Authorities also attempted to assert without evidence that those in political opposition to the regime, independent journalists, and those active in civil engagement or otherwise exercising fundamental freedoms were “extremists” and “terrorists” or supportive of fascism. In 2021, authorities amended the law on “countering extremism” and passed a new law “preventing the rehabilitation of Nazism” to make it easier to levy these charges (see section 2.a.). Lukashenka also enforced a law in 2021 amending the criminal code to permit the use of the death penalty for individuals convicted of “attempted acts of terrorism,” a charge the government frequently used against political prisoners and activists. The government refused to acknowledge the existence of political prisoners and asserted all detainees had committed criminal or civil offenses, despite evidence provided by human rights groups and activists indicating the political nature of their arrests, detentions, and convictions under the government-controlled judiciary. At year’s end, the Ministry of Interior listed 105 “extremist” organizations and groups, including independent media outlets and opposition chat groups, along with 2,181 “extremist individuals,” including most political opposition figures in exile. The KGB list of terrorists included 997 individuals, of whom 262 were Belarusians, and four Belarusian organizations, such as the media outlet Nexta.
Political prisoner and 2020 presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka remained in prison serving a 14-year sentence for allegedly accepting a large bribe and laundering funds obtained illegally after he sought to run in the 2020 presidential election. Human rights groups called him a political prisoner. Babaryka’s son Eduard remained in detention as of year’s end (see section 1.d., Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees). Coordination Council Presidium member and one of Babaryka’s defense attorneys, Maksim Znak, and Babaryka’s campaign manager Maria Kalesnikava continued to serve their respective 10- and 11-year prison sentences, on charges of “actions that threaten national security,” creating and managing an “extremist formation,” and engaging in a “conspiracy to seize power with unconstitutional means.” On May 25, the KGB added Kalesnikava and Znak to their list of terrorists. Human rights organizations recognized Viktar and Eduard Babaryka, Maksim Znak, and Maria Kalesnikava as political prisoners.
At year’s end political prisoner and presidential hopeful Syarhey Tsikhanouski (husband of opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya), his cameraman Artsiom Sakau, and his social media moderator Dzmitry Papau continued to serve their respective 18-year, 16-year, and 16-year prison sentences after being convicted on charges of organizing mass unrest and activities that violated public order, inciting social hatred, and impeding the operations of the Central Election Commission, for Tsikhanouski’s alleged role in organizing peaceful, prodemocracy protests in 2020. Former presidential candidate Mikalay Statkevich and Radio Liberty journalist Ihar Losik, tried in the same case, continued to serve their 14- and 15-year prison sentences, respectively. Human rights organizations considered all five political prisoners. On June 1, the Supreme Court dismissed appeals filed by Tsikhanouski, Statkevich, Losik, and three other convicted associates and upheld their convictions. On August 11, authorities filed a transfer for Tsikhanouski from a penal colony to a higher-security facility.
On October 17, the Minsk region court convicted Siarhei Hlebka on charges of terrorism acts for setting railways on fire in order to disrupt movement of Russian military armaments and equipment on March 1. The court sentenced him to 11 years in a high-security prison. Human rights groups recognized him as a political prisoner. In a similar case, the Homyel regional court convicted in a December 27 closed-door hearing Dzianis Dzikun, Dzmitry Ravich, and Aleh Malchanau for setting fire to a railway relay cabinet that affected traffic lights and railroad switches on February 28 and sentenced them each to more than 20 years’ imprisonment on charges of state treason, acts of terrorism, and participating in an extremist group. Human rights groups recognized all three men as political prisoners.
During the year, numerous political prisoners faced additional penalties based on minor or invented violations of prison regulations. This was a common tactic used by authorities to further punish political prisoners, exclude them from amnesty or clemency, deny them basic necessities, and extend their sentences. For example, on March 30, the Homyel penal colony administration repeatedly denied political prisoner Maria Kalesnikava meetings with her family. In one instance, her father told reporters Kalesnikava had supposedly spoken impolitely to a prison officer, for which she was formally reprimanded. On April 12, she was issued a second reprimand and deprived of visitation for purportedly interrupting the prison’s director in a conversation.
On September 15, the Ivatsevichy regional court transferred political prisoner Stsyapan Latypau from a low-security penal colony to a high-security prison for purportedly violating internal prison regulations. Originally sentenced in August 2021 to eight-and-one-half years on embezzlement, resisting police, and organizing and financing activities that grossly violated public order, Latypau’s family revealed he had swallowed a blade and cut his veins in July to protest continued violation of his rights in prison. In 2021, Latypau also attempted to commit suicide at his trial after telling the court room he had been forced to confess.
Amnesty: On December 8, Lukashenka signed into law an amnesty bill that state media reported would commute sentences or grant clemency to more than 8,000 persons, but which human rights organizations said completely excluded political prisoners. According to the Interior Ministry, at least 4,545 persons would be granted relief from court-ordered sentences and punitive measures, including prison, and approximately 4,000 others would see their terms reduced by a year. State media reported it would take authorities six months to fully implement and specified it would not apply to those convicted of “extremist” or “terrorist” activities, excluding scores of political prisoners falsely convicted of such crimes. Along with these designations, the amnesty excludes other crimes most often applied to political prisoners, including participating or organizing mass riots; establishing or participating in an extremist formation; incitement of racial, national, religious, or other social hatred or discord; preparing or waging war; terrorist acts; applying violence against police; or insulting and slandering the president, public servants, or officials. State media also said the law would “be applied to those who are positively characterized by law enforcement and prison administrations,” which suggested a layer of adjudication for amnesty cases to further exclude those who did not settle punitive damages or fines – which can be deliberately exorbitant for political cases – or those who had disciplinary infractions in prison – which prison officials routinely used to target political prisoners for minor or invented infractions.
Some individuals were pardoned fully or conditionally during the year. There were reports that political prisoners were cajoled into admitting their guilt and formally requesting pardons, but these steps did not guarantee conditional pardons, since authorities pointed to other arbitrary reasons to bar their release during the pardon process. As part of the pardon process, political prisoners were sometimes encouraged to obtain a guarantor for their release. Under the law, the guarantor could be fined if the pardoned individual did not comply with the conditions of release.
For example, Lukashenka pardoned and released four women political prisoners to mark International Women’s Day on March 8. Afterwards, the regime released a video in which the women thanked Lukashenka and prison authorities, claimed they had repented, recognized their guilt, and had submitted pardon requests. One of the women, Natalia Tourova, convicted for insulting the president and sentenced to 13 months in prison, said on camera all charges against her were dropped. The three other women were Anastasia Yarashevich, sentenced to two years for violence against a police officer, Liudmila Kuzniatsova, sentenced to one year for insulting the president, and Ala Tsikhamirava, sentenced to two years on similar charges.
On September 21, authorities released political prisoner and Radio Liberty correspondent Aleh Hrudzilovich after Lukashenka pardoned him on September 19. He told the press he did not admit his guilt but did sign a pardon petition. Immediate departure from the country was a condition for Hrudzilovich’s release. The government convicted him on charges of allegedly participating in protests, which he covered as an independent media journalist, and sentenced him to one year and a half in jail on March 3 (see section 2.d., Exile).
On November 17, Investigative Committee First Deputy Chairperson Aleh Shandarovich said that authorities completed their investigation of criminal cases against independent media employees and that while some employees and journalists of Tut.by (the largest independent media outlet in the country) cooperated with investigators, paid all damages caused by tax evasion, and appealed for a pardon, they would nevertheless face trials.
Authorities engaged in acts of transnational repression during the year to intimidate or exact reprisal against individuals outside of the country, including exiled democratic opposition leaders, civil society activists, human rights defenders, and journalists. In particular, the regime carried out kidnappings and forced returns, opened politically motivated investigations against prodemocracy activists and members of the democratic opposition, held trials in absentia, regularly abused Interpol notices, and frequently harassed exiles, subjected them to surveillance, and threatened them with violence.
On July 21, Lukashenka signed amendments to the criminal procedures code, allowing investigations and criminal cases to be conducted in absentia for suspects and defendants located outside of the country, which human rights organizations considered a way to target the exiled political figures (see section 1.e., Trial Procedures).
For example, on October 18, the Prosecutor General’s Office announced it had submitted to court criminal cases against Yanina Sazanovich, Dzmitry Navosha, Daniil Bahdanovich, Volha Vysotskaya, and Valerya Zaniamonskaya for allegedly inciting social hatred and illegally collecting and disseminating personally identifiable information of security officials. The five exiled activists faced politically motivated charges for creating “extremist” groups and chats in Telegram. The Minsk city court commenced their trial on December 12. The Prosecutor General’s Office also reported that Olympic silver medalist in swimming Alyaksandra Herasimenia and sports manager Alyaksandr Apeikin, who founded the independent Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation based in Vilnius, would also be tried in absentia on charges of calling for sanctions against the regime. Herasimenia and Apeikin were tried in absentia and were each sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment on December 26 (see also Trial Procedures subsection). On September 28, the Investigative Committee also said that 2020 presidential hopeful Valery Tsapkala was facing criminal charges of “corruption and extremism” and would be tried in absentia.
Extraterritorial Killing, Kidnapping, Forced Returns, or Other Violence or Threats of Violence: Authorities were credibly alleged to have kidnapped persons or used violence or threats of violence against individuals in other countries, including to force their return to the country, for purposes of politically motivated reprisal.
In May 2021, authorities forced a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius to land in Minsk after air traffic control told the pilot there was a credible bomb threat on board and scrambled a MiG-29 jet to escort the plane. Upon landing, Raman Pratasevich, a blogger and journalist critical of Lukashenka’s regime, and his companion Sofia Sapega were taken off the plane, arrested, and detained. As of October, Pratasevich continued to be harassed by authorities and faced three criminal charges that human rights organizations deem politically motivated. On May 6, the Hrodna regional court sentenced Sapega, a Russian citizen, to six years in jail after she was convicted of two criminal charges, including inciting hatred within a group and illegal collection of information on private life, charges which human rights NGOs deemed politically motivated. According to prosecutors, Sapega administered several Telegram channels that were posting information about public servants and law enforcement officers responsible for abuses against peaceful protesters during the violent crackdown that ensued following the 2020 presidential election. Sapega was also ordered to compensate “the victims of her actions” a total amount of 167,500 rubles ($64,500) for “moral damages.” She appealed to Lukashenka for a pardon. As of year’s end, Sapega remained imprisoned. Human rights organizations deemed both Pratasevich and Sapega political prisoners.
In July, the International Civil Aviation Organization’s Fact Finding Investigative Team released its findings on the May 2021 grounding of Ryanair flight 4978. The report concluded Belarusian officials deliberately manufactured a false bomb threat to force the pilots to land in Minsk.
On September 5, the Minsk regional court convicted U.S.-Belarus dual citizen and immigration lawyer Yuras Ziankovich, Belarusian People’s Front opposition party chair Ryhor Kastuseu, political analyst Aliaksandr Fyaduta, Ziankovich’s assistant Volha Galubovich, and democratic activist Dzianis Krauchuk for allegedly attempting a coup d’état. Ziankovich was also charged with establishing an extremist organization and inciting social hatred and ultimately sentenced to 11 years. Fyaduta and Kastuseu were each sentenced to 10 years in prison, while Galubovich and Krauchuk, formally charged with participating in activities grossly violating public order, got two-and-a-half-year sentences each. In April 2021, Ziankovich and Fyaduta were reportedly kidnapped from the Nordic Rooms Hotel in Moscow and forcibly returned to Minsk by Belarusian security officials who operated with the tacit support or acquiescence of Russian security officials. Independent observers said no extradition procedures or judicial processes had been initiated prior to the kidnapping and forced return.
Threats, Harassment, Surveillance, and Coercion: Belarusians outside the country reported instances of harassment, surveillance, and intimidation from individuals suspected of affiliation with the Lukashenka regime. Human rights defenders also reported that individuals inside the country were harassed or arrested after their family members fled the country or joined one of the Belarusian battalions fighting alongside the Ukrainian armed forces. According to the Polish-based Radio Racyja’s November 7 report, Siarhei Bandarenka, cousin of deceased volunteer fighter in Ukraine, Vasily Parfyankou, was arrested on July 8 after reposting “extremist” information regarding his cousin’s death. He was convicted and served 15 days in prison. Authorities subsequently beat Bandarenka and leveled new charges against him, putting him in a hospital, from where he escaped and fled the country. Human rights groups reported in July that security officials detained Parfyankou’s mother and sister and searched their residence. They were reportedly charged with resisting police and served 10 days of detention. In April, police-associated Telegram channels posted a video of the mother condemning her son’s participation in the war and support of Ukraine.
Authorities repeatedly damaged or destroyed exiled activists’ property as a method of retaliation. On June 28, for example, law enforcement authorities raided the Minsk apartment of exiled blogger and military analyst Anton Matolka. Matolka’s organization monitors military and intelligence activities and movements, including those of Russian troops in Belarus. Authorities caused significant damage to his apartment and publicized the ransacked property on proregime social media pages.
There were reports that authorities exerted pressure on relatives of opposition supporters who had fled the country in order to punish or coerce the person who had fled. For example, on January 28, Yana Latushka, daughter of exiled opposition leader Pavel Latushka, told the press that the Financial Investigations Department of the State Control Committee opened a criminal investigation against her and froze her assets, including her Minsk apartment. On September 20, a Minsk court sentenced Anatoly Latushka, cousin of Pavel Latushka, to six years in prison. Latushka and two others were charged with painting the illegal “Pahonia” coat-of-arms on mailboxes. The other two defendants received lesser sentences.
Misuse of International Law Enforcement Tools: There were credible reports that authorities misused international law-enforcement tools for politically motivated reprisals against Belarusians. In September, for example, the Prosecutor General’s Office said it filed 179 Interpol notices, mainly in Russia (140 notices). There were no reports of deportations based on the notices.
Efforts to Control Mobility: There were credible reports that the country’s embassies abroad refused consular services to citizens who fled abroad and told them to return to the country for such services, including obtaining new passports and registering newborn children. These individuals said they would not return due to fear of politically motivated detentions, torture in prison facilities, and the lack of rule of law to protect them from human rights abuses.
Bilateral Pressure: There were credible reports that Belarusian authorities attempted to exert bilateral pressure on countries, including Lithuania, to take adverse action against Belarusians who fled the country to avoid human rights abuses, politically motivated arrests, and punishment by authorities. For example, in March 2021, the Prosecutor General’s Office stated that opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya was wanted for “crimes committed against public order, public safety, and the state” and that Belarusian authorities requested that Lithuania extradite her. On March 4, the Prosecutor General’s Office opened another criminal case against Tsikhanouskaya on charges of committing treason and harming national security by publicly calling for “acts of terrorism, sabotage,” and sanctions in her antiwar statements. The Lithuanian government continuously denied Belarus’ extradition requests, which according to the Belarusian Investigative Committee’s press release on October 21, led to Tsikhanouskaya and her Coordination Council associates, including Pavel Latushka, Volha Kavalkova, Siarhei Dyleuski, and Maria Maroz, being investigated and potentially tried in absentia. Authorities charged them with attempting to take over government buildings, preparing mass riots, conspiring to take over state powers, committing treason, calling for sanctions, and creating and leading extremist groups, among other criminal counts.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
The law provides that individuals may file lawsuits seeking damages for human rights violations, but the civil judiciary was not independent and was not impartial in such matters.
Property Seizure and Restitution
Authorities harassed and pressured opposition leaders and activists through property seizures and confiscation. For example, independent media reported on November 11 that authorities auctioned off a summer house confiscated from Minsk-based opposition activist Nina Bahinskaya over multiple unpaid fines in 2016. In a separate case, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya told the press on September 6 that authorities confiscated the Minsk apartment she shared with her husband and political prisoner Siarhei Tsikhanouski as compensation for damages Tsikhanouski allegedly caused to the state. Political prisoner Ihar Losik’s property, including household appliances and furniture, was also confiscated from his place of residence in July and auctioned in August. Losik’s wife stated that they were denied a request to buy the property back (see sections 1.d., Arbitrary Arrest and 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees).
There are no laws providing for restitution or compensation for immovable private property confiscated during World War II or the Soviet period. In 2019, the government reported that in the previous 11 years it had not received any requests or claims from individuals, NGOs, or any other public organization, either Jewish or foreign, seeking compensation or restitution of any property.
For information regarding Holocaust-era property restitution and related topics, please see the Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act Report to Congress at: : https://www.state.gov/reports/just-act-report-to-congress/.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law prohibits such actions, but the government routinely did not respect these prohibitions. Authorities used a wide variety or illegal surveillance methods and other forms of unlawful privacy violations to control dissent and free speech, and to monitor opposition groups, activists, journalists, and ordinary citizens. This included facial recognition, wiretapping, video surveillance, and a network of informers, which deprived persons of privacy.
The law requires a warrant before or immediately after conducting a search. The KGB has authority to enter any building at any time, as long as it applies for a warrant within 24 hours after the entry. The regime’s full control over the judiciary, however, made the warrant process a formality.
While security officers generally were able to obtain warrants even in politically motivated cases, there were reports authorities entered properties without judicial or other appropriate authorization. After the 2020 presidential election and continuing through 2022, frequent instances were reported of plainclothes officers forcing entry into private homes or businesses. These officers often refused to show identification or a warrant, or claimed it was sufficient for them to state their affiliation with a government agency and proceed with the entry. Authorities carried out surveillance online.
On October 21, Lukashenka signed a new regulation to provide the KGB access to all databases of any websites inside the country. Under the decree, all telecom operators and owners of internet resources are required to use the “electronic interaction information system” to communicate with the State Security Service and KGB. There were reports that authorities accessed, collected, or used private communications or personal data arbitrarily or unlawfully or without appropriate legal authority. For example, after the 2020 presidential election and afterwards, security officials often threatened detained individuals with violence if they did not unlock their cell phones for review. Officials also threatened individuals at detention facilities with harsher sentences if they did not unlock their cell phones or laptops that had been confiscated. Increasingly during the year, security officials reportedly treated more harshly individuals with photographs or social media accounts that officials regarded as pro-opposition or that showed security forces committing abuses. On May 26, a Minsk district court convicted popular blogger Volha Tomina on politically motivated charges of participating in action grossly violating public order in 2020 based on photographs found in her cell phone. She was sentenced to two years in prison. In a separate case, police in Homyel reported on April 15 that two local residents were arrested for spraying graffiti in support of Ukraine and for supporting “radical Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Polish nationalism” based on materials found by security officials in their cell phones. Human rights groups also reported multiple cases of political prisoners, serving sentences at probation facilities, being searched and their cell phones checked for subscription to alleged “extremist” messenger chats and other banned online resources.
While the law prohibits authorities from intercepting telephone and other communications without a prosecutor’s order, authorities routinely monitored residences, telephones, and computers. Political opposition and civil society activists claimed that authorities regularly monitored their conversations and activities. The government continued to collect and obtain personally identifiable information on independent journalists and democratic activists during raids and by confiscating computer equipment.
The law allows the KGB, Ministry of Internal Affairs, special security services, financial intelligence personnel, and certain border guard detachments to use wiretaps. Wiretaps require the permission of a prosecutor, but the lack of prosecutorial independence rendered this requirement meaningless. The Ministry of Communications has authority to terminate the telephone service of persons who violate telephone contracts, which prohibit the use of telephone services for purposes contrary to state interests and public order.
Authorities used internet and social media controls, blocking or filtering of websites and social media platforms, spyware, data analytics, and other forms of internet control and surveillance against a wide swath of the population. According to the 2022 Freedom on the Net Report published by the NGO Freedom House, internet freedom continued to decline following the 2020 presidential election with repression against online journalists, activists, and internet users. The government also blocked the websites of civil society and independent media groups operating in exile. These practices continued during the year. The government employed systematic, sophisticated surveillance techniques to monitor its citizens and control online communications at its discretion and without independent authorization or oversight.
The October 21 decree regulating “interaction between telecommunication operators, telecommunication service providers, owners of internet resources and agencies engaged in operational and search activities” mandated online resources such as email providers, instant messengers, online stores, and taxi and car sharing services to store user data and provide authorities with remote access to the data. The decree also established the Operational Analytical Center, which reports directly to Lukashenka, with the authority to obtain direct round-the-clock access to national and subnational databases and information systems of internet resources for the purpose of operational and search activities. All websites designated by these agencies are required to install a system that gives them such access. According to human rights experts, law enforcement and intelligence agencies received and compared telecommunications data with data from online services, practices that cannot be challenged in court due to their covert nature. In addition, website owners and communication providers are required to keep information about all services provided to users for at least one year.
After the 2020 election, security officials increased efforts to monitor and infiltrate encrypted messenger chat groups. According to multiple reports, dozens of political prisoners were implicated based on screen shots from the online messaging platform Telegram chats or from IP addresses acquired when they opened spoofed unsecure links authorities sent to encrypted chats.
The government utilized the Russian-developed System of Operative Investigative Measures, which provides authorities with direct, automated access to communications data from landline telephone networks, mobile service providers, and internet service providers. The government also blocked and filtered websites and social media platforms (see section 2.a., Internet Freedom). The country employed a centralized system of video monitoring cameras. Authorities sought surveillance and hacking tools from several countries and developed domestic capacity that links closed-circuit television cameras in the country and other Commonwealth of Independent States countries and uses facial recognition technology. In 2020, the EU-sanctioned Belarusian information technology firm Synesis for providing “Belarusian authorities with a surveillance platform…making the company responsible for the repression of civil society and democratic opposition by the state apparatus.” On August 24, Minsk senior investigator Siarhei Pasko said the Minsk city investigative office created a database of “hundreds of thousands of video files, which helped identify over 1,400 participants of street protests” for the purpose of arresting, detaining, and charging them for their participation in unsanctioned mass events.
State television reportedly obtained state surveillance footage and wiretap transcripts from state security services and used it to produce progovernment exposes against the opposition.
Authorities maintained informant networks at state enterprises after the 2020 presidential election to identify which workers intended to strike or were agitating for political change, according to political activists.
Family members were reportedly punished for offenses allegedly committed by their relatives (see section 1.e., Transnational Repression). Authorities temporarily removed or threatened to remove children from the custody of their parents to punish the parents for protesting or political activism. For example, on August 19, Minsk police arrested Natallia Karneyeva and her husband, who was released 10 days later, on protest-related charges. Authorities placed her 10-year-old daughter into a state foster facility since Natallia’s husband was the stepfather and she had no immediate family members. Natallia remained in detention at that time but on November 2, was convicted on charges of participation in action grossly violating public order and sentenced to three years of house arrest.