According to a Belarusian NGO, there are close to 1,500 political prisoners in Belarus at this moment.
Human Rights Center Viasna is an internationally known human rights NGO in Belarus. As Reuters reported, it had a leading role in providing legal and financial assistance to Belarusians who were prosecuted after the mass protests that erupted in 2020. Many of its leaders, including the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialatski, are illegally and unjustly detained. Together with Valiantsin Stefanovich, deputy head of Viasna, and Uladzimir Labkovich, Viasna’s lawyer, Bialatski is facing 7 to 12 years of imprisonment. Their trial started on January 5, 2023 in Belarus.
Viasna issued a yearly report on the human rights situation in Belarus on January 20, 2023. In an email, the Viasna team wrote to Global Voices that for the year ahead:
“We do hope to see change, better sooner than later, because so many political prisoners are languishing in prisons, each day for them being endless torture. Our priority is helping to set these people free, in particular our imprisoned colleagues, Viasna leaders and members”
Global Voices is reprinting an edited extract from the report, with the organization's permission.
The repressive policies of Belarusian authorities
The profound socio-political crisis that was prompted by the usurpation of power and its concentration in the hands of Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who refused to accept his de facto defeat in the presidential election of August 2020, together with the lack of effective democratic institutions in Belarus, determined the continuation and build-up of the repressive policies of the Belarusian authorities in 2022.
There are no true legal mechanisms for constitutional change of power in Belarus. Neither is there protection and promotion of the rights to peaceful assembly, freedom of association, freedom of expression, freedom from torture and other types of cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment.
The actions of all branches of power are aimed at building a new, totalitarian system that demonstrates zero tolerance to any deviations from official policy and ideology. An atmosphere of general fear is instilled in society. Any manifestations of dissent are eradicated.
The impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine
In return for political and economic support — of the Belarusian dictatorship under sanctions — from the authorities of the Russian Federation, the country offered a lot. First of all, the authorities allowed Russia the use of Belarus's territory, airspace and infrastructure in Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Secondly, Belarus also gave its unconditional political and informational support for the offensive.
Viasna immediately and unconditionally condemned the act of aggression [that was the Russian invasion of Ukraine] and the involvement of Lukashenka's regime in it. Viasna thinks that one of the prerequisites for the start of the war was the suppression of Belarusian civil society, which consistently and uncompromisingly refused to support the desire of the Russian and part of the Belarusian power elites to create geopolitical and military unions that would involve Belarus in the implementation of the imperial ambitions of the Russian authorities.
The war in Ukraine has had an ambiguous impact on the policy of states and international organizations towards Belarus. On the one hand, it changed the vector of general attention on the country, but, on the other hand, it provoked wider consequences and a greater impact of the world politics on Belarusian domestic political processes.
The construction of a totalitarian system required a change in the constitution. The current version, although created to support the unconditional priority of the executive power headed by Lukashenka, has ceased to satisfy the dictator’s needs. At the same time, the legislative framework has been losing its legal features and continues to be filled with reactionary norms that ignored the democratic constitutional foundations and international obligations of Belarus. The main tools for holding power and repressing opponents, critics of the regime and dissidents are still criminal and administrative prosecution, arbitrary arrests, dismissals from work and de facto deportation.
Prosecution of political prisoners
As of January 1, there were 1,446 political prisoners in Belarus, according to a national coalition of human rights organizations. The list of political prisoners is based on a set of universally recognized principles provided for by the thematic guidelines. Over the year 2022, the list increased by 477 people. While more than 580 former political prisoners were released in 2022, Viasna counted a total of 889 people that were called political prisoners during the year.
Viasna is aware of at least 1,242 persons convicted on politically motivated criminal charges in 2022. At least 2,627 individuals were convicted for the events triggered by the protests of 2020, and almost 3,800 people faced criminal prosecution during this period. Viasna knows the names of 6,381 persons arrested and at least 3,272 convicted under administrative procedures for the exercise of their rights and freedoms. Among those, 2,274 were sentenced to short terms of administrative imprisonment and 938 were fined.
Prosecution of media, journalists and lawyers
The authorities continue to actively use repressions against journalists in connection with their professional activities: according to the BAJ (Belarusian Association of Journalists), 33 journalists and media workers are currently imprisoned and 43 journalists were arrested during the year.
Legislation regulating the activities of civil society associations has significantly worsened their position in a number of key areas. According to Lawtrend, since 2021, about 1,180 non-governmental organizations have been closed down or are in the process of dissolution. This signifies the continuing trend of the demolition of civil society institutions.
The judicial system routinely ignores the standards of a fair trial. The legal field, having lost the main features of an independent self-governing institution, itself became an instrument of repression against lawyers. In general, lawyers carry out their activities under constant pressure, threats and harassment. The most active of them are subject to criminal and administrative prosecution, while many lose their right to work.
Death penalty and execution: A profound human rights crisis
Belarus continues to apply the death penalty. During the year 2022, there was no information about new death sentences, but an earlier death sentence against Viktar Paulau, was carried out. Two people are being held on death row awaiting execution. The government has further expanded legislative grounds to use the death penalty.
Politically motivated repression continued to be widespread in 2022, testifying to a profound human rights crisis. It led to the international isolation of Belarus and wide sanctions from the EU countries, the US and the UK.
Viasna continues its active work to protect and promote human rights. On September 30, 2022, the organization received an Albie Award from the Clooney Foundation for Justice in the category “Justice Democracy Defenders.” On December 8, 2022, at The Hague, Viasna was awarded the Human Rights Tulip award, founded by the Government of the Netherlands.
The full report is downloadable here (in English).