Belarus is currently seeing daily criminal trials against journalists, human rights defenders and protesters. On February 18, two journalists, Ekaterina Andreyeva and Daria Chultsova (pictured), who work for Belsat, a Poland-based TV station, were each sentenced to two years in a penal colony for doing their job. (Photo by Stringer/AFP via Getty Images)
It has been six months since protests began in Belarus against the authoritarian regime of President Alexander Lukashenko and the unfree elections that took place there on August 9, 2020. Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since he came into power in 1994, has cracked down violently on the still ongoing protests, in which police have detained more than 33,000 people.
On November 5, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) issued a report, OSCE Rapporteur's Report under the Moscow Mechanism on Alleged Human Rights Violations related to the Presidential Elections of 9 August 2020, which concluded that the presidential elections "fell short of fulfilling the basic international requirements for genuine elections. Accordingly, the allegations that the presidential elections were not transparent, free or fair were found confirmed."
The report also found that Belarus authorities were guilty of "major human rights abuses" that were "massive and systematic and proven beyond doubt" and that there was an absence of fair trials in political cases. The report also confirmed that basic human rights, such as freedom of assembly, association and free speech were "under massive attack".
The crackdown has escalated recently, with authorities rounding up at least 40 journalists and human rights activists nationwide, according to Human Rights Watch. Groups whose offices were raided included Viasna Human Rights Centre, the Belarusian Association of Journalists, Barys Zvozskau Belarusian Human Rights House, and Belarus Solidarity Foundation.
Belarus is currently seeing daily criminal trials against journalists, human rights defenders and protesters. On February 18, two journalists, Ekaterina Andreyeva and Daria Chultsova, who work for Belsat, a Poland-based TV station, were each sentenced to two years in a penal colony for doing their job. They were reporting live from a rally held in Minsk for Raman Bandarenka, a protester who was beaten up by a group of masked men believed to be linked to the security forces. Bandarenka subsequently died from his injuries. Belarusian officials have claimed that Bandarenka's attackers had nothing to do with the authorities or riot police, claiming that Bandarenka was drunk when he was attacked.
The two journalists were found guilty of "organizing activities violating public order." According to IPI – The Global Network for Press Freedom, Belsat's journalists have been "among the most aggressively targeted and sanctioned by the regime in recent months".
On February 19, physician Artsyom Sarokin and journalist Katsyaryna Barysevich went on trial for allegedly "disclosing medical information". Barysevich had quoted Sarokin in an article she wrote about Bandarenka, writing that no alcohol had been found in the protester's blood, thereby going against the official version of the authorities. The trial of the two, who have been declared prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International, is being held behind closed doors and could lead to prison sentences of three years in a penal colony.
On February 22, 16-year-old protester Mikita Zalatou was sentenced to 5 years in a penal colony for "mass disorder" after he allegedly threw a Molotov cocktail at security forces during anti-regime protests in August. He has epilepsy and has allegedly been beaten repeatedly in prison. "You, political prisoner, will die," said one of the prison guards, refusing to give Mikita medication during one of his epileptic fits, according to Franak Viačorka, Senior Advisor to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the exiled leader of the opposition.
Belarus' prison system and the use of penal colonies has its roots in the Soviet prison system and remains largely unreformed, according to Judith Pallot, director of the GULAGECHOES project at the University of Helsinki.
"The majority were established during the Soviet period. Today's penitentiaries occupy the same sites, and in some cases, the same buildings as their gulag predecessors. The basic building-blocks of the Soviet system of prisoner management – the principles of collectivism, militarism and correction through labour – have carried through to the present day".
Pallot points out, significantly, that Belarus "is not a member of the Council of Europe – it still has the death penalty which is an automatic bar to its membership."
"This means that it is not subject to... requirements... to bring its prison system in line with the norms outlined in the European Prison Rules. The Belarus prison service is part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. This is dangerous for prisoners' rights because it means that the agency responsible for investigating alleged criminal offences is the same as the agency in charge of guarding prisoners. This is like foxes being trusted to stand guard over hen houses. All prisoners are vulnerable to their treatment in custody being manipulated at the behest of investigators to exact confessions and witness statements from them. The lack of transparency of the Belarus prison service is almost absolute. A combination of lack of access by independent human rights monitors and fear of reprisal helps to maintain the invisibility of human rights violations and poor conditions of detention in Belarus prisons."
The question now is, whether Belarussian civil society stands a chance against the overwhelming power of the state apparatus, which is being brought to bear on it. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the opposition leader exiled in Lithuania, recently expressed doubts that the protest movement will be able to force Lukashenko from power and bring about democracy in the near future.
"We don't have the means to combat the violence of the regime against the demonstrators," Tikhanovskaya said. "They have the weapons, they have the force, so yes, for the moment it seems that we have lost. The return to democracy is going to take longer than planned."
"The message we want to deliver right now is to not close your eyes. We know it's exhausting. Atrocities of the dictatorship never end, we tell you of terrible things happening every day. But we are living through them and we need your help," Tsikhanovskaya's adviser, Franak Viačorka, tweeted on February 22.
The US has designated several individuals and entities in Belarus for their role in undermining democracy and human rights abuses. The EU has also imposed several rounds of sanctions against high-level officials responsible for the ongoing repression and human rights abuses. It is up for debate, however, whether sanctions have any effect on the leadership of Belarus, especially because Belarus largely relies on Russia, not the West. "Personal sanctions don't change the situation on the ground," Artyom Shraibman, a political analyst based in Minsk, told Politico in September. "The individuals on the list don't care about being on it. On the contrary, they consider it a medal of honor."
"In Belarus, people want to see light at the end of the tunnel, to think of the day when, at last, everything will be fine. And because they are counting on a swift resolution, they now expect a fantastic plan ... But such a plan does not exist," Tikhanovskaya said. "Our strategy is to better organise ourselves, to put the regime under constant pressure, until the moment when people will once again be ready to go back on to the streets, perhaps in spring."
Meanwhile, Lukashenko is clinging on to power, refusing to abscond. "I will not suddenly give up the presidency," Lukashenko said recently. "I have nothing other than Belarus. I cling to it and I hold on to it".
Judith Bergman, a columnist, lawyer and political analyst, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.