Press briefing notes on Belarus

We remain deeply concerned at the situation in Belarus more than three months on from the disputed presidential election, as the Belarusian Government continues to wield the machinery of the State to commit human rights violations.

Since the 9 August presidential election, Belarusians have taken to the streets across the country in peaceful mass demonstrations to voice their grievances. In response, they have frequently been met by unnecessary or excessive use of force by law enforcement officials.

Arbitrary mass detentions continue – to date, it is estimated more than 25,000 people have been detained, including more than 1,000 who took part in solidarity protests in the capital, Minsk, and throughout Belarus on 8 November.

Many of those detained have faced administrative charges, in some cases being held for up to 15 days, but the Belarusian authorities are increasingly bringing criminal charges against people.

For example, some 231 individuals, including three journalists, were reportedly detained on 1 November as suspects in a criminal case concerning the organization and active participation in actions that “grossly violate public order” – a charge that potentially carries a prison term of three years.

In recent weeks, the authorities have broadened the scope of those being targeted, with students and medical workers in particular now facing undue restrictions and pressure.

Students, who have rallied in support of people on strike, have been threatened with expulsion from their educational institutions, and since 26 October, at least 127 have reportedly been expelled from their courses, jeopardizing their right to education and prospects for employment.

Medical workers and doctors who have taken part in solidarity chains and professional marches to denounce the violence and ill-treatment perpetrated against protesters have also been detained. During a peaceful protest in Minsk on 7 November, at least 57 medical workers were reportedly detained within five minutes of the demonstration beginning.

And this week reports have surfaced that some 60 victims of violence and torture who had received financial assistance from a charity fund had had their bank accounts frozen on the orders of the authorities.

The Belarusian Government has to date provided no information regarding the process and outcomes of investigations into allegations of torture and other ill-treatment against protesters, both during arrests and in detention.

In August we voiced our concerns that no action seemed to have been taken to investigate such reports and bring those responsible to justice.

The latest developments only strengthen the sense that impunity for apparently widespread human rights violations committed during the protests and in detention continues unchecked in Belarus.

We remind the Belarusian authorities of the absolute prohibition of torture and the need for thorough, independent and impartial investigations into all allegations of human rights violations, with a view to ensuring accountability, ensuring access to an effective remedy for victims and preventing a further deterioration of the situation. All those detained for voicing their dissent or for taking part in protests, strikes and other peaceful actions should be freed immediately and the charges against them dropped.

We have also just received disturbing reports about the tragic death of a 31-year old man, Roman Bondarenko, who died on Thursday after allegedly being ill-treated by a member of the security forces.

Reportedly, Bondarenko was among a group of people confronted by some masked men on Wednesday in Minsk, and was struck on the head by one of them. He was apparently then taken to a police station before being transferred to hospital with serious brain injuries, where he died.

His death has led to increased tension and further protests. The authorities have said that they are investigating the incident, but deny that those who attacked Bondarenko belonged to the security services. We call on the Belarusian authorities to conduct a thorough, transparent and independent investigation into this incident and to publicly share its results. If indeed, a crime has been committed, whoever is responsible for the death of Roman Bondarenko should be brought to justice.