Crackdown on Dissent Choking European Country, UN Rights Chief Says

242 views | TNC Reporter | February 27, 2021

Months after Belarus’ disputed presidential election of last year, UN rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, has told the Human Rights Council that a “systematic crackdown” against dissent is still choking the European country.

Officially, the country is known as Republic of Belarus. It is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe. It is bordered by Russia to the east and northeast, Ukraine to the south, Poland to the west, and Lithuania and Latvia to the northwest.

Belarus covers an area of 207,600 square kilometres (80,200 sq mi), with a population of 9.4 million, and is the 13th largest and the twentieth-most populous country in Europe. The country is administratively divided into seven regions, and is one of the most urbanised in the world, with over 40% of its total land area forestedMinsk is the country’s capital and largest city.

Until the 20th century, different states at various times controlled the lands of modern-day Belarus, including Kievan Rus’, the Principality of Polotsk, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Russian Empire.

In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution in 1917, different states arose competing for legitimacy amidst the Civil War, ultimately ending in the rise of the Byelorussian SSR, which became a founding constituent republic of the Soviet Union in 1922. After the Polish-Soviet War, Belarus lost almost half of its territory to Poland. Much of the borders of Belarus took their modern shape in 1939, when some lands of the Second Polish Republic were reintegrated into it after the Soviet invasion of Poland, and were finalised after World War II.

During WWII, military operations devastated Belarus, which lost about a quarter of its population and half of its economic resources.[13] The republic was redeveloped in the post-war years. In 1945, the Byelorussian SSR became a founding member of the United Nations, along with the Soviet Union.

However, in comments to the Geneva forum, the High Commissioner for Human Rights insisted that curbs on demonstrators had got worse since last August poll returned President Alexander Lukashenko to office.

Those protests had led to “mass arbitrary arrests and detentions” of largely peaceful demonstrators, along with “hundreds of allegations of torture and ill-treatment”, Ms. Bachelet said, before noting that “not one of the hundreds of complaints for acts of torture and ill-treatment” had been investigated.

The High Commissioner highlighted concerns about government proposals which will reportedly “enable harsher punishments” for those taking part in peaceful demonstrations from now on.

To date, nearly 250 people have received prison sentences on allegedly politically-motivated charges context of the 2020 presidential election, Ms. Bachelet said.

Unprecedented’ human rights crisis

The OHCHR report “covers serious violations” of rights between 1 May and 20 December last year. “The events that unfolded before and immediately after the election have led to a human rights crisis of unprecedented dimension in the country”, added Ms. Bachelet.

All of the violations detailed “committed with impunity, created an atmosphere of fear”, she said, noting the further deterioration since December.

She said journalists were being increasingly targeted, “and human rights defenders both institutionally and individually. Just last week, large-scale searches of human rights defenders, journalists, and organizations such as the Belarusian Association of Journalists and Viasna (A Minsk-based human rights centre) were conducted, reportedly in connection with criminal investigations for ‘mass disorder’”.

She told the Council it was “essential for the future of the country that respect for human rights, and the broadest possible civic space, be established. All those who have been detained for peacefully exercising their rights should be released.”

The rights chief called for “thorough, effective, credible and transparent investigations” into all the allegations of serious violations, with perpetrators being brought to justice, as well as an “immediate end” to the Government policy of harassment and intimidation of civil society and media workers.

“I further recommend comprehensive reform of the national legal framework”, she concluded. “Our report includes specific recommendations, which address key systemic issues, including with respect to fair trials, due process and the independence of the judiciary.”

242 views | TNC Reporter | February 27, 2021

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