Between late April and early May 2020, several human rights defenders in Belarus have been arbitrarily detained and subjected to judicial harassment for participating in peaceful assemblies and criticising government policies. This wave of prosecution of human rights defenders is taking place against the backdrop of the campaign for the presidential election, due to take place on 9 August 2020. This targeting of human rights defenders is expected to have a chilling effect on civil society and affect the important role of human rights defenders in ensuring independent monitoring during the election campaign and election day. Since early May, approximately 120 people, including several human rights defenders, have been detained, fined or sentenced to up to 25 days detention on charges of violating the procedure for holding a protest. The arrests are related to three protest movements, namely weekly protests against a battery factory in Brest; the Youth Bloc rally in Minsk against the decision to hold the annual Victory Day parade on 9 May in the context of COVID-19; and numerous gatherings in protest against the arrest of well-known YouTube vlogger Syarhei Tikhanovsky.
Several other human rights defenders who criticised the state’s environmental policy or commented on COVID19 have also been targeted and may face criminal charges. Five of the human rights defenders arrested are from the leading human rights organization in Belarus, Human Rights Centre Viasna (HRC Viasna).
– Aliaksandr Burakou is a human rights defender, a member of HRC Viasna and a journalist for mspring.online, a website that covers human rights violations in Belarus. On 8 May 2020, Aliaksandr Burakou was detained in Mogilev in connection with a protest held on 6 May against the detention of Syarhei Tsikhanouski. He was detained for 72 hours, the first seven hours of which he spent in a cold, windowless room no bigger than 2.5m by 2.5m. On 11 May he appeared before the Leninsky District Court where he was sentenced to 10 days’ detention on charges of violating the procedure for organising and holding a protest.
– Aliaksandr Burakou’s nephew, Ales Burakou, is a defender, journalist and also a member of HRC Viasna. On 15 May 2020 Ales Burakou was detained at his apartment and brought to the Leninsky District Department of Internal Affairs in the city of Mogilev. He was sentenced on the same day to 10 days of administrative detention for alleged participation in an unauthorized mass event on 6 May.
– On 10 May 2020, human rights defenders Raman Kisliak, member of For Freedom Movement board, and Uladzimir Vialichkin, member of HRC Viasna, were arbitrarily detained when monitoring a protest against the construction of a battery plant in Brest. The protests, referred to as “Pigeons feeding”, have been taking place in the city on Sundays since March 2018. Upon their detention, the whereabouts of the two human rights defenders remained unknown and their families and colleagues were not able to contact them. It eventually transpired that they had initially been taken to Kobrinsky District Department of Internal Affairs, approximately 40 km from Brest, before being transferred on 12 May to the temporary detention centre of the Leninsky District Department of the Interior of the city of Brest.
– Alena Masliukova is an environmental rights defender and a member of HRC Viasna in Svetlogorsk. She has been particularly engaged in activities against the construction of a pulp bleaching factory in Svetlogorsk on account of its negative environmental impact. On 23 April 2020, Masliukova was questioned as part of an investigation as result of a complaint against her, after a comment she made on social media criticising the President and the authorities for allegedly disseminating false and inaccurate information regarding the factory’s purpose. Her phone and laptop were also seized as part of the investigation.
– Andrei Miadzvedzeu is a journalist and a member of HRC Viasna in Rechytsa. On 7 May 2020, he was questioned in connection with a critical commentary he had written and posted on the social media network Vkontakte, in response to an article published in the local newspaper Dniprovets. Despite the fact that no complaint was made by the editor of the newspaper, which is a legal prerequisite for investigation, Andrei Miadzvedzeu is currently under investigation and may face criminal charges.
Belarus is ranked 153 in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index. Critical journalists and bloggers are threatened and arrested, leading news sites are blocked, access to information is restricted and media diversity is unknown. The state exercises total control over all TV channels. A few independent media outlets exist but many are forced to base themselves abroad and the authorities continue to harass them. Publications that were previously spared, such as Tut.by and the BelaPAN news agency, are now being targeted by the authorities. Those lucky enough to be tolerated struggle to survive because they are denied both state subsidies and advertising.